It was at this time last year when Austin Bryant was the guy at defensive end.
With Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd off to the NFL, Bryant was the most experienced defensive end on the roster and he was expected to have a big season after coming on at the end of the 2015 season, including a monster game in the Orange Bowl in which he tallied eight tackles coming off the bench for an injured Lawson.
Bryant had a monster spring and was considered part of two promising bookends—the other was Clelin Ferrell—that would lead a young defense for the next three seasons. However, none of that transpired as Bryant broke a bone in his foot which caused him to miss most of fall camp and the first six games of the 2016 season.
“I learned how to persevere through a tough time,” the junior said recently. “I just had to work my way back patiently and continue to contribute in any way I could to help the team, and down the stretch I was able to play more and more.”
Bryant returned in time to play 27 snaps against NC State and he immediately made an impact as he came up with a late-game sack. He was also a part of two sacks the next week at Florida State as he slowly made his way back onto the football field.
“That is when I realized during the season I could do close to what I was doing in camp,” Bryant said.
The 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end went on to play at least 22 snaps in every game after the Tigers’ win in Tallahassee, Fla., including a season-high 39 against Alabama after Ferrell went down with an injury.
With Christian Wilkins moved back inside this past spring to defensive tackle, Bryant reassumed his position as a starting defensive end, a position he obviously embraces with pride.
“I was preparing as if I was the starter before I got hurt during camp, and then I had to take time out,” he said. “But even when I was behind [Wilkins], I was preparing like I was the starter. My mindset never really changed, but now I am the starter so I have to prove it every day and earn it every day.”
Bryant did that this spring as he took his play to another level as he tries to help a defense that is returning seven starters from last year’s national championship team.
“I have not been disappointed,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “I think there is this other level up here that he is pushing for and working for. He is getting closer. He has done pretty well this spring.”
With Bryant and Ferrell both healthy, Clemson has one of the best bookend tandems in college football, as well as one of the best defensive lines with Wilkins and Freshman All-American Dexter Lawrence playing inside.
Let’s not forget Clemson is loaded with reserves like Albert Huggins, Sterling Johnson, Xavier Kelly, Nyles Pinckney, Richard Yeargin and Chris Register, too.
“At the end of the day, that is all just talk,” Bryant said. “What makes us so special is that each guy on the D-line wants to work. They want to work. All of us want to be the best that we can be. The stuff no one sees is that we are watching extra film and lifting extra, so I think it is that dynamic that can help us be one of the best in the country.”