Meet Taven Bryan, the Florida DL Drawing Comparisons to J.J. Watt

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterAugust 24, 2017


Taven Bryan considers the question.

How high can you jump?      

Wearing a blue cutoff shirt, bright orange shorts and a baby face, the Florida Gators defensive lineman takes a moment to consider his ability to conquer gravity.The pounds are evenly distributed throughout Bryan's 6'5" colossal frame as he shifts forward in his chair, giving a sense that this kind of size is almost normal. He is, if there is such a thing, a lean 295 pounds. He could easily add weight if he wanted.

The answer finally comes.

"I could probably still jump up on a pickup truck," he says.

Back home in Casper, Wyoming, Bryan used to stand next to his father's red and white Dodge Cummins truck and throw his body up onto the side rails. So in terms of a vertical leap, that's the bar.

OK, how about your 40 time?

This one is even more challenging, in part because there is no bar. Unlike most future NFLers, Bryan isn't obsessed with measurables. He doesn't watch the NFL on Sundays. He never had a favorite player growing up. He loves football, in large part because of the game's violence, but he is not consumed by it when he doesn't have to be.

When he learns that former Texas A&M defensive end and 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick Myles Garrett clocked a 4.64 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, he doesn't flinch. "So that's fast?" he asks.

He's not being coy. He's merely asking for clarity. Although Bryan carries more weight and plays a different position from Garrett—arguably the most gifted athlete to enter the NFL in the past five years—he's not scared off by the number.

"Yeah, I could probably run something like that," he says, unfazed.

Courtesy of University of Florida

Survey his coaches, and not one disagrees. They say he's among the fastest players on the team—yes, a 295-pound man is among the fastest players on an SEC team—as well as being the strongest.

On the topic of strength, how much can you squat?

This one he knows. At least roughly. Bryan regularly squats in excess of 600 pounds, although he doesn't push this any further in large part to avoid injury. "No point," he says.

"I played quarterback, and I don't know much about the weight room," head coach Jim McElwain says. "But I do know that when that big metal bar starts to bend a bit, that there's a lot of weight on there.

"This guy is arguably the best athlete on our football team. I'm sure many of the players would tell you the same thing."

From a physical standpoint, Bryan is a create-a-player. He is large enough to stop the run. Strong enough to fight double-teams. Long enough to close down throwing lanes and knock down passes. Fast enough to track down running backs and even wide receivers in space. He can play any position along the defensive line.

"He's freaky now," defensive line coach Chris Rumph says. "If he can put it all together, he can be something special. His size and skill and assets are incredible. They are off the charts.

"He can go down as one of the really good players that have come out of this program."

Former Florida defensive coordinator and current Temple head coach Geoff Collins goes even further.

"I always thought he had J.J. Watt-ish ability," he says. "He's a physical freak, and he's gotten better every single day. He's an NFL player now with room to get better. It's a scary thought."

Those inside and around the program glow about the Wyoming Wildman—the nickname he was gifted by Rumph. They believe one day, likely soon, he will be an impossible piece along the defensive line.

If he can put it all together, he can be something special. ... He can go down as one of the really good players that have come out of this program. — Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph

But there's the catch. One day. To date, it hasn't happened.

Despite the physical tools and high expectations, Bryan has accumulated only 27 tackles entering his redshirt junior season. He has 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. (For what it's worth, Bryan is convinced the stat-trackers missed a few along the way.)

His most notable moment was a suplex tackle of Alabama running back Joshua Jacobs in the SEC Championship Game last season that resulted in an ejection. (Bryan, a former wrestler, says he was only playing football and that he let up on the takedown.)

So why hasn't it happened? Why hasn't a player being likened to Myles Garrett and J.J. Watt blossomed into household name at a place that produces meaningful defensive linemen yearly?

For those answers, you must travel back in time to Wyoming—to The Shouse—to see where Bryan comes from, how he got here and why his time is coming.

We begin 25 minutes outside of Casper, Wyoming, surrounded by hayfields and dirt roads in daylight and by pure darkness at night. It is here off Bishop Road that you'll find an industrial building unlike any you have seen before. It is 100 feet long and 50 feet wide, sitting on more than 32 acres of land.

On one end of the structure is a spacious workshop. On the other, a two-story, three-bedroom home. It's as if the two accidentally collided in the middle of nothing. The result is a place known as The Shouse.

For nearly all of Bryan's life, this is where his day began. He would roll out of bed before school, often before the sun rose. He'd then head to work with his father, Brandy ("like the girl's name or the liquor," Bryan is quick to note). Then it was school. Then, often, right back to work.

Work started with Bryan cleaning tools and sweeping partially constructed homes by the age of seven. His father, who does his own construction on the side, wanted to bring him on slowly. "Bulls--t labor stuff," Brandy says.

Stacey, Brandy and Taven Bryan
Stacey, Brandy and Taven BryanCourtesy of the Bryan family

As he grew older, Bryan took on more. While his friends would play, Bryan would help his father build housing foundations and frame walls. He would swing a 16-pound sledgehammer over and over to break concrete.

He was not paid by the hour, at least directly. Brandy would buy his son video games and other trinkets when he asked. An acknowledgment of work. But the hours were expected.

Before he joined the Casper Fire Department and worked in construction, back in the late 1980s, Brandy joined the Navy. By the early 1990s, he made it through BUDS/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) Training and became a Navy SEAL.

"If you don't mind being cold, wet, miserable and hungry all the time, the SEALs are for you," he says.

In truth, it was for him. He liked being all of those things and being pushed beyond his breaking points. He liked the idea that he would one day pass along these same values to his children.

The time away from home wasn't as good a fit. Over his last two years as a SEAL, Brandy was home for only 29 days. Bryan's mom, Stacey, became frustrated with the time apart from her husband, and eventually he returned home permanently to be with his wife and raise his two children. He settled back down in Casper, his home growing up.

"You've got warriors, and you got other people," Brandy says on his training. "I got into it and became a warrior. Now, I train my son like a warrior."

Their stories together—in the gym, at home and on the job—are seemingly endless, like the time Brandy accidentally shot himself in the leg with a nail gun on the job after losing his balance in a home they were building. A three-and-a-half inch nail went directly into his kneecap.

"He pulled it out with pliers, said motherf--ker a few times and taped it right up," Bryan recalls.

Brandy went back to work after that, unhappy with himself. Over the next few weeks, he drained the swelling from the injury himself before finally caving in and seeing a doctor.

When they weren't on the job, they were working out. A portion of The Shouse was transformed into a gym, complete with a squat rack, benches and a pull-up bar.

With money tight, they even created their own dumbbells. Each time Brandy went to a Walmart, he would come home with 15 to 20 pounds in weights. When there was enough weight for a new dumbbell, he would weld them onto a metal rod. As Bryan outgrew the dumbbells, they made more.

By the time he arrived at Natrona County High School, Bryan was an outlier. At any program in America, he would have been impossible to miss. But out here?

"A man amongst boys," his father says.

Courtesy of the University of Florida

On the football field, Bryan featured primarily as an offensive lineman, where he eventually earned All-State honors. He made the position look easy, using both his strength and speed to push aside players who never stood a chance.

Bryan also wrestled and was on the track team. Throwing the shot put and discus were natural fits, but he also ran the 100-meter sprint. It was a sight to be seen—a man twice the size of his competition, outrunning those across the line for a good chunk of the race.

"I'd smoke them to about the 40- or 50-meter mark," Bryan jokes. "Then they would eventually pass me."

In 2013, Bryan won the discus 4A discus state championship with a throw of 155 feet. Less than two hours after the meet had ended, with trophy and accolades in tow, he was swinging a sledgehammer with his dad.

Somehow Will Muschamp arrived here. And ended up in full fireman attire. In the middle of somewhere with a blizzard closing in.

If he's being honest about his visit to Casper back in 2013, as the wind and cold cut through his skin, the former Florida head coach had his doubts.

His assistants did too. They wondered why he wanted to recruit in Wyoming—in particular, recruit a 3-star offensive lineman (No. 72 in the nation, according to Scout) with little national exposure—when every roster necessity was within driving distance of Gainesville.

AUBURN, AL - APRIL 18: Defensive coordinator and former Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp of Auburn Tigers prior to Auburn's A-Day game on April 18, 2015 at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)
Michael Chang/Getty Images

Two members of his Florida staff with West Coast roots, special teams' coordinator Jeff Choate and offensive coordinator Brent Pease, had already made the trip to see Bryan. They returned with video of an offensive lineman jumping on top of a 40-inch box with ease.

"He looked like a gazelle going up and down the boxes," Muschamp, now the head coach of South Carolina, recalls. "I couldn't believe the kid weighed 260 pounds."

So Muschamp, undeterred by the naysayers and intrigued by the player, took the long journey west. With a snowstorm looming, he had to cut it short.

He met Bryan and his father at the Casper Fire Department with little time to spare and the weather worsening. Brandy wanted to know just how badly Muschamp wanted his son, so he asked him to don his full fireman outfit.

At first, Muschamp thought he was joking. Moments later, he was dressed head-to-toe in the full ensemble.

"It's amazing what you do for a good player," he says.

Bryan visited Oregon, Oklahoma, Washington and Nebraska. Alabama and Ole Miss were among the other schools that showed some interest. The common theme among these teams, though, was that they wanted Bryan as an offensive lineman, his primary position in high school.

Bryan, however, wanted to play defense—even though he had seen limited time on that side of the ball in high school. He wanted a chance to generate contact rather than prevent it. Florida was one of the few major programs allowing him to make that move.

"I put him in that 'Athlete' category. I didn't know what it was, but I knew he was going to be something," Muschamp says. "If he has the athleticism that I think he has, he's an All-American defensive tackle. If he doesn't, he's all-conference offensive lineman. You don't pigeonhole guys like that."

If he has the athleticism that I think he has, he's an All-American defensive tackle. — Former Florida head coach Will Muschamp

Bryan committed to Florida and Muschamp, who stepped down from his position after Bryan's first season.

With his commitment, Bryan became the first player from Wyoming to ever play for Florida's program. At least, that is the working theory years later. Because the geographical roster only dates back to the 1950s, the school has attempted to confirm his place in history.

As of now, Bryan stands alone.

In the offseason, McElwain doesn't head to the beach when he wants to shut down. He heads west, where few can find him, to Flathead Lake in northern Montana.

Long before he was paid more than $4 million annually to coach, McElwain was a promising young football player from Missoula, Montana. He went on to become an all-state quarterback at Sentinel High School before playing at Eastern Washington.

So McElwain can relate to Bryan's journey like perhaps no one else with the Florida program can. He isn't from the same place. His time in Wyoming has been spent mainly in a car, driving from one end to another. He remembers the night he got caught on Interstate 25 during a snowstorm, sitting alongside truckers, waiting for the road to open again.

But he comes from a similar mindset. In that sense, he and Bryan are both outsiders in Florida.

"In team meetings, there are jokes that I might tell, and he's the only one who understands," McElwain says. "It helps me because he brings me a touch of home."

Although the Wyoming Wildman is the nickname that has stuck, McElwain, who has a nickname for all of his players, has his own name for Bryan: "Rootin' Tootin' Cowboy Joe," an homage to the Wyoming fight song.

Courtesy of the Bryan family

The connection between player and coach goes back further than Florida. As the head coach of Colorado State in the years prior to his move to the SEC, McElwain made an effort to recruit Bryan.

"We couldn't even get him to drive by our campus," McElwain recalls. "You knew he was going to bigger places."

Years later, when McElwain first arrived in Gainesville, he and his staff attended some of the team's bowl practices to evaluate the roster. Bryan came into Florida around 260 pounds before dipping down to 240 after dealing with an extended bout of strep throat.

By the time new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins laid eyes on him, he was 295 pounds and an immediate standout. On the field, he was as gifted as he was raw—showing glimpses of awe-inspiring ability in a moment and the inexperience of learning his new position in another.

Away from it, he wore pajamas and flip-flops to meetings. He wasn't obsessed with his phone, and to this day, he rarely makes calls. He tried social media for a while when friends suggested it only to later abandon it entirely.

"He's not trying to fit into a social norm and be someone that he's not," Collins says. "Taven is Taven. He has a different perspective on life and football, and I think it's refreshing."

His limited numbers on the field are a product of a few factors.

First off, there's the fact that the majority of the reps in high school weren't on the defensive line. He essentially started over when he got to Florida. As a result, he is still learning the nuances of a complicated position. It's becoming more natural now, to the point that the initial flashes are starting to be the norm. But that has not come easy.

Making the lack of experience at his position more limiting, Bryan has been on a team that featured a depth chart chock-full of talented, seasoned players. Last season, Bryan backed up Caleb Brantley, now of the Cleveland Browns. He also battled for playing time with Joey Ivie, who's now a Dallas Cowboy, and class of 2015 5-star super recruit CeCe Jefferson.

Defensive tackle Khairi Clark, one of Bryan's best friends on the team, has been in the same position, waiting his turn. But he expects that to change this year for both of them.

"I feel like this is our year," Clark says.

Courtesy of University of Florida

Even if it is, the tackle and sack totals might not be gaudy for Bryan. His coaches are quick to note this. He will never be Myles Garrett in that sense. His job, an assignment he is happy to take, is to lessen the burden of others.

"His continued understanding of the game is where this is headed," McElwain says. "As that continues, his growth is off the charts. Couple that with what he puts on film with what he'll do with his combine numbers, and people will really start to say 'Wow.'"

That's what's next. It has to be, according to McElwain. Because this year, with the depth chart cleared, the Gators are counting on it.

It is the heart of summer back in Casper, weeks before Bryan will report for what he believes will be his breakout year.  

The arrangement at home has not changed, and it never will. Not as a starting defensive lineman in the SEC or even when his NFL career eventually arrives.

"He told me I could do sports or work," Bryan says. "He tricked me, though. Cause now I have to do both."

While home for one last visit before his season begins, he runs the farm tractors for hay and frames homes. He picks up the 16-pound sledgehammer, which feels as light as it ever has in his hands, and breaks concrete.

Although the family sold The Shouse shortly after Bryan left for college—an attempt to save money to make as many home games as possible—father and son still train when he's in town at a nearby gym.

There are no breaks back home. On his first day back, Bryan completes 450 different reps of bench with his father. His last rep is 445 pounds.

Although Brandy says he can no longer lift the same amount of weight as his son, Bryan argues this claim. Whether he can or not, Brandy, who will turn 50 later this year, tries to keep up when he can. For as much and as hard as he has pushed his son over the years, Brandy has been alongside him for every lift, rep and jump.

Standing at the base of a 30-inch box—back in the town where this all began, still working on the explosiveness that got Bryan noticed in the first place—both father and son wear 50-pound weight vests. They have come so far—from the early mornings in The Shouse to the long, unfamiliar journey east to the brink of college football stardom. It's all so close now.

One after the next, the Wyoming Wildman and his father conquer gravity, clearing the obstacle with ease. Until one jump. With his legs beginning to fatigue, Brandy comes up just shy. His shin cracks against the corner, opening an inch-long gouge that goes directly to the bone.

They finish the workout. When it's done, Bryan staples the wound closed for his father. Then, the two warriors head home.


Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.