A few days before he officially became the face of the Mizzou football program, Kelly Bryant walked to the practice fields behind Missouri’s Athletic Training Center and found his predecessor, Drew Lock, throwing on the backfields for one of the final times at MU before starting his rookie season with the Denver Broncos.
Lock asked Bryant about his transition to Missouri, Bryant questioned Lock about his adjustment to an NFL locker room. As they parted ways, the current and former Missouri quarterbacks wished each other well on their upcoming seasons. Lock knows perhaps better than anyone all that awaits Bryant following their meeting on a practice field in July.
If the encounter didn’t signal the passing of the torch from Lock to Bryant, Missouri’s opening session Monday at SEC media days did.
Bryant was the most sought-after interview of the day, with hoards of cameras and reporters following his every move. Lock drew a large crowd at media days in 2018, but his successor’s was twice the size. Despite very different backgrounds, Bryant showed on Monday just how much Lock has rubbed off on him the past few months.
In Lock, Missouri had a third-generation player who displayed unrivaled confidence, was unafraid to talk smack and always found a doubter he needed to prove wrong. His approach taught Bryant — who arrived at Missouri with a resume Lock never had, as he led Clemson to the College Football Playoff and served as Deshaun Watson’s understudy and Trevor Lawrence’s mentor — that the attitude of the Missouri program differs from Clemson’s.
“It’s the Show-Me State,” Bryant said. “I didn’t know that. Just seeing the chip on the shoulder the whole state has shows how much they care about football.”
At Clemson, Bryant was in a locker room full of four and five-star recruits who had dozens of college coaches recruiting them throughout high school and went on to win a national title. When he arrived at Missouri, Bryant was greeted by teammates who were mostly passed over by their in-state school and lost a few games in the final minutes during the previous season.
Most of the questions Bryant received on Monday revolved around why he chose Missouri over Auburn and Arkansas and his thoughts on the controversial transfer portal, which he said “changed my life.” Coaches have complained of the portal since it started a year ago, because it gives players more freedom to explore their options. Bryant said he simply took advantage of the graduate transfer rule. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had no issues with Bryant’s departure.
Multiple reporters pressed Bryant on why he picked Odom as his head coach instead of Arkansas’ Chad Morris, who recruited Bryant to Clemson, or Gus Malzahn, who has won at a higher level than Odom.
Bryant shook off each question respectfully, as he talked about offensive coordinator Derek Dooley and Odom’s frank personalities.
“The first phone conversation we had, he wasn’t into the fluff of recruiting,” Odom said. “He was into the substance.”
“(Odom and Dooley) were still the same as you first met them,” Bryant’s mother, Deborah Bryant, added.
When the NCAA ruled Mizzou ineligible for the postseason in late January, Bryant found out at a meeting full of seniors. At the time, Bryant only knew his teammates at Missouri for a week. Put in a position to be a leader about a situation he had no prior knowledge of, Bryant didn’t flinch.
After Odom delivered the news, the seniors were hit with shock, followed by complete silence. Bryant stood up, looked at his fellow seniors and said, “I came here because I wanted to win football games with this team. And I think we can really do something special, bowl ban or not. We’re going to work every day to make sure that happens.”
Missouri’s seniors were shocked.
Any questions of Bryant’s leadership or fit with the team immediately left their heads.
“That,” said Cale Garrett, a Mizzou senior linebacker, “is when he truly won me over.”
Bryant had no interest in leaving Missouri after the NCAA ruling and said he ignored the texts and calls he got from college coaches throughout the spring. They tried to convince him to leave. He never wavered.
The bowl ban gave Bryant the underdog feeling his teammates already possessed. Getting benched in favor of Lawrence started the fire in Bryant, the NCAA ruling poured gasoline on it. Now that he had it, he wasn’t about to leave before addressing it.
In Bryant, Missouri has its first true dual-threat quarterback since Brad Smith, the quarterback who got the Tigers back on the map. Odom was on then-coach Gary Pinkel’s staff at the time and cautioned comparisons between the two, even if Bryant has already helped MU get back on the national scene in the eyes of some media.
With Bryant paired with tailback Larry Rountree III, MU will likely be a little more run-heavy, but Odom said Bryant’s arm is underrated.
“I think any time you have to defend a number of things from that position it puts a little more strain on the defense,” Odom said. “Kelly is going to be a talented passer. He has the ability to do that. He has the ability to run the ball as well. It will be part of our offense, it won’t be our offense.”
Bryant said he was told on social media that choosing Missouri was a bad decision for his career, and much like his predecessor, he’s eager to start proving those doubters wrong when the Tigers kick off in Wyoming on Aug. 31.
While the team’s postseason fate hangs in the air, Bryant has turned his attention to other matters and already hopes to see one of his biggest critics on Twitter in Laramie.
“Right before I committed, (a fan said) if I go to Missouri he’s going to walk to Wyoming,” Bryant said. “If he’s watching, I want to see him walking to Wyoming. Because I’m here.”