With a Fresh Start at Mizzou, It's Now or Never for Snakebitten QB Kelly Bryant

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterJuly 12, 2019

B/R

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Don't forget what's important, Kelly Bryant tells himself, over and over. Don't wander into murky uncertainty and forget why you're here.    

From Clemson to Mizzou—and no turning back.

He stares into the cold, unforgiving mirror in the bathroom of his campus apartment, the one place he can't hide and the one place the truth glares back without hesitation or explanation.

"I've been tested over and over," Bryant says. "Sometimes I think, Is there something You have been telling me that I'm not understanding?"

The notes and Bible verses pasted around his reflection in the glass are the roadmap to one last chance, to now or never.

"Only I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord. "Plans to prosper you and not harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future." — Jeremiah 28:11

No regrets. Stay focused. Remember your why.

"My why is why I'm here, why I do the things I do," Bryant says.

Why he's a thousand miles from home at Missouri.

Stuck behind generational quarterback Deshaun Watson at Clemson in 2015 and 2016, Bryant had an inconsistent junior season as a starter in 2017—though still leading Clemson to the College Football Playoff—then was beaten out by another generational quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, in 2018. To protect a final season of eligibility, he left Clemson four games into 2018, transferring to Missouri in December amid controversy and second-guessing. Then in January, weeks after arriving in Columbia, he received a text from Missouri coach Barry Odom about an unplanned team meeting.

Less than an hour later, the latest indignity in his star-crossed college career came into focus: Missouri was hit with NCAA sanctions, eliminating any postseason play for the 2019 season.

"Remember your why," Bryant says again, slowly. "Why you're here. Why you do the things that you do."

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01:  Kelly Bryant #2 of the Clemson Tigers reacts after being defeated by Alabama Crimson Tide in the AllState Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Im
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

He stops, and the wound opens and begins to seep, and there's no hiding it now. "Sometimes you want to ask, Why me? But I know everything happens for a reason."

The reason now is simple: play his final season of eligibility in the SEC against the best competition in college football and prepare for the NFL. Success with the former will translate to growth toward the latter.

One season without looking up at Watson, or looking behind at Lawrence. One season when it's all about Kelly Bryant.

One season to show everyone—Clemson, his critics and NFL personnel—that he's far from finished.

"He struggled to throw the ball in 2017. There's no other way to say it," one NFL scout tells Bleacher Report. "There has to be a transformation or he's not playing in this league."

How's that for now or never?

It's not like Bryant hasn't dealt with pressure already. After waiting two seasons behind Watson, who brought Clemson its first national title in 35 years and left as the greatest player in school history, Bryant was being pushed out by another program-defining player. This time, a freshman (Lawrence), who had played in all of four games and had to be bailed out in one of them (vs. Texas A&M).

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney made the decision—"Maybe the toughest decision I've made as a coach; Kelly Bryant is a special guy," he says—and Bryant was vilified on social media as a player who quit on his teammates after deciding to leave Clemson and preserve a season of eligibility.

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

"Some of the stuff he heard was awful," says Bryant's longtime quarterbacks coach, Ramon Robinson. "People who have no idea what's going on are saying things that no one needs to hear. He has taken every rock that has been thrown at him and has kept punching. Then that big boulder hit, and he kept fighting."

So while Clemson rolled through the ACC and then through the CFP to win the national championship and become the first FBS team with 15 wins in a season, Bryant earned his degree in history and youth studies and set out to find another spot to play his final season.

He watched every Clemson game and stayed connected to his teammates. He even continued to text support to Lawrence, because why wouldn't he? It's not Lawrence's fault it ended like it did, and Lawrence was the key to helping Bryant's teammates—with whom he worked and sweat and dreamed for four seasons—win a national championship.

"When it first happened, it had me in a real bad place mentally, especially not playing," Bryant says. "You get used to a routine that you've been doing all of your life, and now you're like, What am I supposed to do? I'm looking at Saturdays, and everybody is playing and I'm taking recruiting visits. I'm looking at those games and thinking, I'm supposed to be there.

"The one thing I learned above all else during that time was: 'Don't take anything for granted. Never get comfortable.'"

Remember your why.

That as much as anything was why he chose Missouri. He could've played just about anywhere but forced himself to embrace the unknown and learn a vastly different, NFL-style offense under quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Derek Dooley.

Every coach told him they'd prepare him for the NFL. Dooley showed him how he helped 2019 second-round draft pick Drew Lock embrace an offense that mirrored what the Dallas Cowboys use: intermediate play-action passes, throwing with a moving pocket and more focus on deep throws.

"Didn't take long to realize he throws a beautiful deep ball," Odom says. "He has been sold short on his ability to throw the ball down the field. That's going to be a weapon for us."

L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

Four months into his one-year shot with Missouri, a group of more than 20 friends and family members arrived in Columbia to watch Bryant play in Missouri's spring game. Aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides of his family. His sister, brother-in-law, dad, mom and grandma.

And eight of his former Clemson teammates.

Position competitions rarely work themselves out easily and are particularly hard on quarterbacks. There's only one on the field, and shared duty almost never works.

When players eventually leave, the idea of what was is quickly and dutifully eliminated.

"We all know this is a business. There are no hard feelings," Clemson wideout Tee Higgins says. "We love Kelly. He's our brother. I can't wait to see his future."

Bryant is 15 practices into this last-chance stop, and completed 12 of 17 passes for 150 yards in limited work during the spring game. He'll have four weeks of fall camp before he takes control of a Missouri team that won eight games last year—and lost another two on the final possession of the game (South Carolina and Kentucky).

The school has appealed its postseason ban, and there's a chance it could be overturned and the team's postseason eligibility restored. Still, this was a business move.

NFL personnel need to see more of Bryant the thrower. Reading defenses, anticipating throws, throwing with accuracy.

He has 16 passing touchdowns and 10 interceptions on 470 career passing attempts, and in his only season as a full-time starter at Clemson, he completed 65.8 percent of his passes in a quarterback-friendly spread system.

"He has a long way to go, but I love those guys who get gut-punched and the adversity just steels them," another NFL scout tells B/R. "His arm is more than strong enough for our league, and coaches at both [Clemson and Missouri] rave about his football IQ and leadership. He desperately needs a full season of [game] tape where he's showing he can consistently make NFL throws."

CLEMSON, SC - SEPTEMBER 01: Quarterback Kelly Bryant #2 of the Clemson Tigers warms up before the start of the Tigers' football game against the Furman Paladins at Clemson Memorial Stadium on September 1, 2018 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Mike Co
Mike Comer/Getty Images

Days after the spring game, Odom is in his office that overlooks a multimillion-dollar renovation of Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium and trying to explain his hesitation with accepting graduate transfers. They're one-time, short-term fixes, he says.

They have to be unique players with charismatic personalities who blend with your locker room and don't create division. They must be uncommon.

When Odom met Bryant, he immediately began to see specific traits of the one quarterback he says he places above all others in his time as a player, assistant coach and head coach at Missouri, the player who holds nearly all of the school's major passing records and has played 10-plus seasons in the NFL.

"Chase Daniel had the most impressive football IQ of any player I've ever been around," Odom says. "That guy knows the ins and outs of every play call, everybody's job on that play, the look from the other side, what we're seeing from the [defensive] front, how the safeties were rotating. It was amazing. You'd sit there in a room and listen to him talk to the receivers or offensive line coaches, and it was like he was a mad scientist or something."

Odom leans back and laughs, then quickly sits up and turns eerily serious.

"There's a lot of that in Kelly Bryant," he continues. "He has the calmness, he knows he's in charge, and everyone else knows it, too. You either have it or you don't."

Back in Bryant's apartment, the book Jesus Calling sits on a bedside table, dog-eared and worn with inspirational Bible passages and stories that help him understand the strange and surreal path that has brought him here.

"Your life is not falling apart," a passage reads. "It's falling into place."

Never lose hope. Remember your why.

"Sometimes things aren't as bad as they seem," Bryant says. "You always want to have good days, but that's not reality in life. It's crazy how I got here, but I'm at peace. Now it's time to go play."

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