Through his first three games at Missouri, quarterback Kelly Bryant has done everything that wasn’t hyped about him shortly after his commitment to the Tigers.
He’s thrown the ball better than expected, completing 68 percent of his passes. And he’s shown the ability to extend plays, something MU lacked under former quarterback Drew Lock, a traditional pocket passer.
But Bryant has yet to show the dynamic running ability that he displayed during his three-year tenure at Clemson.
Through three games, Bryant has rushed for just 26 yards, with his longest run being 12 yards. In 2017, Bryant rushed for 646 yards with his longest run being 47 yards. Before being replaced by Trevor Lawrence as Clemson’s starter in 2018, Bryant rushed for 130 yards in four games.
Missouri has had a number of designed runs and option plays for Bryant, but those plays haven’t moved the chains for MU. When running the option, the majority of the time he hasn’t elected to take off. On Tuesday, Missouri head coach Barry Odom admitted that wasn’t coincidence.
“We were selective the last two weeks with how many times we called a true run because we knew what was coming,” Odom said.
Odom said Missouri was trying to keep Bryant fresh for conference play, which has turned out to be a good decision. In the past few weeks, fellow SEC East schools such as Florida, Kentucky and the Gamecocks have all lost their starting quarterback to injury. On Saturday, South Carolina will start true freshman Ryan Hilinski at QB.
The time for Bryant to become more active couldn’t be better than Saturday. South Carolina enters the game ranked No. 55 nationally in run defense, while MU’s run offense in No. 40. Aftar a rough season debut at Wyoming, MU star tailback Larry Rountree has continued to increase his production by game. Rountree had just 41 yards rushing at Wyoming and a costly fumble, but ran for 104 yards against West Virginia and 142 against Southeast Missouri State.
“Larry looked like Larry,” said Derek Dooley, MU’s offensive coordinator. “Last two weeks he’s looked like Larry. We need that for four quarters.”
Bryant had a costly fumble himself at Wyoming and has tried to be better with the ball in his hands the few times he’s taken off. Despite what the numbers say, especially given what defenses have given him.
“I handled it really well,” Bryant said. “Doing more with my legs. Just big emphasis is continue to have good ball security, especially when I’m running between tackles.”
Dooley said Missouri had more designed runs for Bryant against West Virginia than he did against SEMO because the Tigers’ offense could win comfortably without going deep into the playbook. Dooley implied that sometimes the decision is more Bryant’s than his because of what Bryant is seeing on the option plays.
“He does some things on his own,” Dooley said. “He has some plays where he reads it, he has some plays where he runs it. It’s just a matter of doing it.”
While at Clemson, Bryant regularly faced South Carolina, which makes him no stranger to Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp. Muschamp knows what Bryant brings as a runner, but he is impressed with Bryant’s throwing ability as well.
Bryant’s completion percentage would be a career high if it he can maintain it, aside from his freshman year when he completed 78 percent of his passes as a backup to Deshaun Watson, when he played in garbage time. Under Dooley, Bryant said he’s tried to use his hips more in his delivery.
Muschamp praised Bryant’s completion percentage and finds it “outstanding,” and added that Bryant’s performance at Wyoming was underrated. Bryant’s 798 passing yards currently rank third among SEC quarterbacks.
“I think he’s throwing the deep ball,” Muschamp said on the SEC teleconference. “He’s extremely accurate. ... I thought when they got down against Wyoming he did a really nice job in the second half.”
Dooley said Bryant’s arm has long been underrated and said his film from Clemson speaks for itself.
“He had 14 games at Clemson where he showed what he can do,” Dooley said. “It was good to see him do it in a Missouri uniform.”
Now Bryant has to do the same thing, just with his legs.