Failing to convince himself to transfer elsewhere, Kelly Bryant is feeling the love at Missouri
Bryant looked for every reason not to go to Mizzou, but the draw of the Tigers was simply too much
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Kelly Bryant sits for an interview wearing a Marvel Comics hoodie and wool cap bearing the NASA logo. Don't read anything into it. Missouri's quarterback doesn't consider himself a superhero nor out of this world.
Certainly not after what he has been through.
Bryant's attire is appropriate. It's that cold in March in Bryant's new chosen Midwest home of Missouri.
"I've seen snow," Bryant said. "This is the most snow I've seen in my life, though."
He is as comfortable as a one-time championship quarterback from the Deep South who lost his job to the No. 1 recruit in the country can be. Missouri has welcomed Bryant with a warm embrace for his graduate transfer year, even if he will only be there for only a few months.
Despite the cold, the conditions were actually ideal for Bryant: Drew Lock is headed to the NFL and there was no one on the roster who was 16-2 as a starter with an ACC title and College Football Playoff appearance on his resume.
But in this moment, for one of the most notable graduate transfers of 2019, it's noticeable what he's not wearing.
"Everybody is asking me that," Bryant said. 'Did you get a [championship] ring?' I didn't get anything."
Bryant is not bitter, and he's probably not up to date on the subject. A Clemson official said national championship rings haven't been a topic of conversation at this point, never mind who's going to get them.
But it should be noted Bryant did make a mighty contribution to that championship team before losing his starting job to Trevor Lawrence. Last season's 28-26 win in Week 2 win at Texas A&M was the closest game Clemson played last season. Bryant and Lawrence were sharing snaps that day, but with the game on the line, it was Bryant who was trusted to play the last six series. It was clear he was the veteran closer that day.
"I think me and Kelly have done real well handling it," Lawrence said after the game.
Fifteen days later, Lawrence was named the starter at Clemson. Two days after that, Bryant announced he was transferring.
"When you look at players, it's not always about who's better right now," said Derek Dooley, Bryant's new offensive coordinator. "It's about who's going to be better six weeks from now."
That's as good an explanation of the situation as any. From the time Lawrence was signed at Clemson, it seemed inevitable he was taking over. It was just question of when and how it looked.
It ended up being awkward. Bryant said he didn't get "a fair shot." Clemson coach Dabo Swinney asserted the opposite.
"I was trying to convince myself, 'I don't want to go to Missouri.' I just couldn't." Kelly Bryant
The fickle quarterback culture had something to do with it. Bryant isn't the only transfer quarterback who took his talents elsewhere when playing time became an issue (see: Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields).
New transfer rules had a lot to do with it. Bryant was able to retain a final year of eligibility by appearing in fewer than five games last season
"The reality is if they had not signed that one kid [Lawrence], Kelly's eligibility would be done right now," Dooley said. "[His transfer] was a circumstance."
But Clemson did sign Lawrence because programs are always recruiting over their existing talent. This move may have been one of the more uncomfortable.
"You look at any other position. You can rotate," Bryant said. "The quarterback is pretty much that one guy. As a competitor, guys want to play. Sometimes there has to be balance, though, with patience."
Bryant had more than paid his dues, playing behind Deshaun Watson for two years before getting the job in 2017. The Tigers won the ACC and went 12-2 that season with Bryant throwing for 2,800 yards and accounting for 24 touchdowns.
Lawrence's recruitment was one of the most celebrated in recent years. Maybe Bryant should have sensed writing on the dry-erase board for at that point.
Former Clemson quarterbacks Hunter Johnson and Zerrick Cooper certainly did. Cooper transferred in January 2018. Johnson, a former five-star, did the same last June.
Again, Bryant was not bitter -- at least in this conversation.
"By the time I got to Clemson, coach said, 'We're going to bring in guys at your position.' You knew what you were getting yourself into," Bryant said. "It wasn't like one of those things. It wasn't where I just realized it. I already knew."
Ramon Robinson -- Bryant's private throwing coach back in South Carolina -- has a different take.
"Anyone at that point you're going to be bitter about the situation when you worked so hard," Robinson said. "Of course it's disappointing. If it wasn't disappointing, there's something wrong with him."
Swinney has had positive things to say about Bryant at every turn, including this week during a visit to St. Louis Cardinals spring training.
Meanwhile, Bryant looks back at Clemson fondly. He still texts former teammates Isaiah Simmons, Diondre Overton, Shaq Smith and Cornell Powell. All of it might have hit home when Bryant watched the College Football National Championship with his family at home in Calhoun Falls, South Carolina.
"It was crazy, a lot of emotions because it was like, 'Dang, I remember being out there in the heat and the cold with those guys,'" Bryant said.
His last spring practice started Sunday. Bryant joked with Missouri beat writers: "Hi, my name is Kelly Bryant -- walk-on quarterback."
To his credit, coach Barry Odom has dispensed with the competition tap dance. Bryant is listed at the top of the Missouri depth chart. He's already been shown loyalty. When Missouri was hit with a one-year bowl ban on Jan. 31, Bryant immediately said he was staying.
No more transferring.
In Bryant, Missouri gets a smooth transition from Lock, who threw 99 career touchdowns. (He set the SEC record in 2017 with 44 touchdown passes.)
It's also a credit to Dooley, who 14 months ago had to win over Lock as a first-time offensive coordinator. Now, Dooley said, there is "more of hardcore evidence to sell. With Drew, it was a vision."
"I don't want to look back on this opportunity and wish I did something different," Bryant said. "This is like 6-8 months left, and I'm just getting here. This is it for me. One more year. I know the urgency."
Yeah, but why Missouri? A case can be made for the four other schools Bryant visited -- North Carolina, Auburn, Mississippi State and Arkansas.
North Carolina was close to home. Auburn has the best championship profile. There was a relationship at Arkansas with Chad Morris, Clemson's former offensive coordinator. Mississippi State has offensive mastermind Joe Moorhead as coach.
"Why Missouri? Everybody asks me that," Bryant said. "I was asking myself that early on."
Columbia is 800 miles from Calhoun Falls. But Dooley's offense clicked with Bryant -- a spread with a mix of NFL concepts. The Tigers finished in the top 15 nationally in total offense, third in the SEC.
"At some point, you have to go lead," Dooley said of transfers in general but obviously speaking about Bryant specifically. "You don't have a connection with anybody. You don't know anybody. It's a hard thing to me. And then, oh by the way, you're running a new offense that none of this stuff makes sense when you get there.
"It's hard to lead people when you're figuring out what you need to do."
Whether it was a strategic decision or not, Mizzou offensive quality control analyst Austin Carta-Samuels picked up Bryant from the St. Louis airport on his visit. Carta-Samuels was a transfer quarterback himself, going from Wyoming to Vanderbilt.
"It was a long ride," Bryant said. "He said it would be an hour and a half, two hours before we get to Columbia. I said, 'What?'
"When I got back on the plane, it was like, 'OK, they have my attention.' There were these other schools, but Mizzou was still in the back of my head. I was trying to convince myself, 'I don't want to go to Missouri.' I just couldn't."
In the new transfer environment, home is where you make it. At Clemson, the expectation each year is championships. In Bryant's last season at a middle-of-the-road SEC program, that hasn't changed.
"From a team standpoint, the goal is 12-0," he said. "We've got to make sure we don't look too far ahead."
There's usually no problem with that here. Missouri last won a conference title in 1969.
Bryant's roommate is a fellow transfer in Jonathan Nance, a wide receiver from Arkansas. The new quarterback had to be told about the most popular eateries in town. Bryant did admit a visit to Ms. Kim's Fish & Chicken Shack.
The time then came to ask Bryant how he would be remembered at his former school before he took a snap at his current school.
"A guy who's been heavily criticized," he said, "but at the same time didn't let any of that change the way he went about his business.
"A guy who stayed the course. It wasn't always pretty."
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