When Brian Kelly was announced as the next head coach of the University of Notre Dame, one of the key areas stressed was the importance of player development, a point of emphasis that had been sorely lacking for the Fighting Irish. A critical component of Kelly’s development plan in South Bend thus far has been his ability to instill patience in his players.
Troy Niklas was a 4-star recruit from Anaheim, CA recruited as an offensive tackle. Upon his arrival, and due to his extreme athleticism, Niklas became a part of Kelly’s “big skill” position grouping and ultimately transitioned from the offensive line to outside linebacker, recording 20 tackles as a true freshman. His versatility and coachability provided him an opportunity to switch to the offensive side of the ball yet again his sophomore year to the tight end position, and by the end of his junior season Niklas had continued Notre Dame’s tradition as “Tight End U” after the torch was passed on to him by NFL predecessors Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert.
Niklas’ story of patience is just one of many that has been replicated many times over since Brian Kelly’s arrival. Stephon Tuitt, a Georgia native, briefly decommitted from Notre Dame in favor of Georgia Tech during his recruitment, a destination that would have allowed him the luxury of staying closer to family. Instead, Kelly and staff convinced Tuitt to step out of his comfort zone on his way to an All-American career and a soon-to-be NFL roster.
Louis Nix flirted with the idea of leaving Notre Dame before he became a fan favorite and widely-speculated first round NFL draft selection.
“I do it for my family,” Nix told reporters when he arrived at spring practice in 2012, opting to stick it out with Notre Dame. “I keep my head on straight, I’ll be fine. I’m here. That’s all that matters.”
Battling through obstacles only to thrive has been a common theme that has once again reappeared in the form of Notre Dame redshirt freshman running back, Greg Bryant. Bryant arrived on campus last summer with the distinction of being the highest rated running back the Fighting Irish had signed within the Internet era. Anticipated to be a key contributor to the Fighting Irish’s rushing attack, Bryant’s season would instead be filled with frustration and setbacks.
The blue chip freshman was forced to redshirt after struggling with tendonitis in his right knee, though physical pain may have been secondary to the difficultly of acclimating to Bryant’s new surroundings. In addition to adjusting to a rigorous academic workload, Bryant had to endure pangs of homesickness while living through one of the worst South Bend winters in decades, a tough situation for any individual, let alone a Florida native.
Bryant’s struggles were unrelenting, even following him to his hometown, the one place where he should have been offered asylum from the pressures of major college football.
“I went back home in the spring and they’re like, ‘Oh man, what happened? You’re not the same player that you were before,” Bryant told ESPN.
The stumbling blocks and doubt have fueled the now-healthy Bryant, whose talent and determination have begun to make its presence known on the practice field. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock did not appear the least bit reticent when describing Bryant as “an incredibly explosive athlete.”
The difference with Bryant’s play on the football field extends beyond a healthy knee – it indicates a healthy psyche.
“I think he’s really got the whole college experience and handling the academics and being away from home and the weather – I think he’s acclimated quite well to all of those things. So now I think he feels like it’s smooth sailing for him. He can just focus on football,” Brian Kelly said to the media in regard to the emerging Floridian.
Kelly’s assessment seems to line up with Bryant’s own version of events.
“All that stuff, all of that negativity just gave me the hunger now not to go back that way and just to come and make a big impact and show people what I can do, because honestly people are sleeping on me right now, so I’m just hungry,” Bryant said.
Bryant’s emergence has become one of the leading stories of spring practice, and reports of his progress will surely make him one of the must-watch participants of Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold game on April 12.
The former 5-star running back is poised to make critics eat their words from the previous season, and Notre Dame fans couldn’t be happier.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his fiancée. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.