Jake Browning wouldn’t play his next game for a week, but on Saturday night the Huskies quarterback was savoring the match-up difficulties created by teammate Hunter Bryant.
“When you’re a defensive coordinator,” Browning mused, “are you going to treat him as a receiver or as a tight end? We have him blocking and doing pass protection stuff, but he’s also really good with a ball in his hands.
“He’s really dangerous.”
Bryant revealed himself as the offense’s breakout star in Washington’s 38-7 victory over California. A true freshman from Eastside Catholic in Issaquah, the tight end who often lines up wide caught nine passes for 121 yards and a touchdown.
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Bryant began the evening as part of a three-man rotation at tight end with Will Dissly and Drew Sample. By the end of the evening, it was evident another target for Browning had emerged besides Dante Pettis.
With three receiving touchdowns and three more scores on punt returns, Pettis remains the Huskies primary downfield threat. But on those occasions he’s covered too effectively, Bryant presents an appealing option.
“We’ve got to be able to distribute the ball beyond Dante and Myles,” said offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith, referring to starting tailback Myles Gaskin. “Hunter stepped up big for us.”
At 6-foot-2, Bryant stands a few inches shorter than the prototypical major-college tight end. He compensates for any height disadvantage with strength developed at a young age. His father, Ed Bryant, is a former Huskies athletic trainer who helped hone Hunter into a 239-pound athlete bound to prevail in any kind of physical confrontation.
That strength was put to use during a “who-wants-it-the-most?” scrum for the ball in the Cal end zone. Bryant retained possession, giving the Huskies their first score.
“His touchdown was pretty impressive,” head coach Chris Petersen said. “I couldn’t see it during the game, but I caught it on the replay. He kept fighting. A heck of an effort on his part.”
Because Petersen’s team policy prevents freshmen from speaking to the media during the regular season, Bryant was unavailable to talk about his performance.
But UW’s junior quarterback was.
“He’s going to play more and more of a role because of what he can do in the passing game,” said Browning. “He’s a tight end, so he’s making strides in the running game, too.
“He’s a little bit of a hybrid, which is pretty common now.”
Although Bryant’s crisp routes and soft hands might have been a revelation to some fans at Husky Stadium, those who pay close attention to recruiting were not surprised.
Prep scouting experts ranked Bryant as high as the No. 2 tight end in the nation after his stellar career at Eastside Catholic.
“Sometimes it’s tough to know about guys,” Petersen said of evaluating high-school talent. “And sometimes it’s not real tough to know. He was one of the guys it wasn’t tough to see.
“He catches the ball as well as anybody on our team. Hopefully, this was a confidence builder and booster for him. He’s a good weapon.”
Once upon a time, Washington was regarded as a program that routinely produced NFL-caliber tight ends. Between 1992 and 2002, five Huskies were drafted no lower than the third round.
First-round picks included Mark Bruener (to the Steelers, in 1995) and Jerramy Stevens (to the Seahawks, in 2002). But over the 15 years since the Hawks took Stevens, the only UW tight end selected in the draft has been Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, Tampa Bay’s first-round choice in 2014.
Hunter Bryant’s college career is just six games old, so it’s premature to speculate on his potential to excel at the next level. But there’s no question about Bryant’s potential to excel in 2017.
“We knew when he came in he was about to be something special,” said Pettis. “The guy is the truth.”