When Kelly Bryant lost his starting job at Clemson last season, the immediate story was the door opening for freshman QB phenom Trevor Lawrence, who didn’t disappoint by leading the Tigers to a national title.
On the other side of the coin, Bryant became a relatively hot free agent in the NCAA’s transfer portal — and his sights were set on landing at a destination where his reputation among NFL scouts could be refurbished.
Bryant chose Missouri over a host of other schools that called on him, and the senior quarterback spoke Monday at SEC Media Days about that decision.
‘He’s a weird guy’
It turns out that Tigers offensive coordinator Derek Dooley, who spent five years as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys, was a big selling point for Bryant landing at Mizzou.
“He’s a weird guy,” Bryant said of his new play caller, “but I like that about him.”
The colorful — and, yes, weird — Dooley knows a little something about needing to remind people of his talent. After a rough patch as head coach at Tennessee from 2010-12, with losing records (one worse than the next) each year, Dooley was run out of Knoxville by angry Vols fans. He landed as the wide receivers coach with the Cowboys, helping coach an offense that ranked in the top five in points scored in three of his five seasons.
That landed Dooley a job under Missouri head coach Barry Odom — a surprise hire considering Dooley hadn’t called plays in college. But Dooley twice had been a head coach and twice coached an assistant in the NFL (also on Nick Saban’s Miami Dolphins staff in 2005 and 2006), and he earned a huge first victory by persuading Mizzou QB Drew Lock to remain in school another year.
Although Lock’s numbers fell off last season and he unexpectedly slipped to the top of Round 2 in April’s draft, many onlookers — and Lock himself — believe that it was a strong pairing that helped the QB prepare for the league.
How one season can change Kelly Bryant’s NFL draft stock
Now Bryant is Dooley’s next one-year starter. He’s eligible for the 2020 NFL draft and hopes this season can prove he’s an NFL-caliber passer.
“I have one year, and I want to put myself in position to be able to have a chance at the next level,” Bryant said Monday. “I look at Missouri, Coach Dooley, he was with the Cowboys. He has pretty much the same offensive style, terminology that they had.
“So, now having to learn a whole new offense at the pace of how they do in the NFL, I was like, ‘I’m up for that challenge.’”
Bryant said Dooley liked what he saw of his new quarterback at Clemson “from a passing standpoint” and “also what I can do with my legs.” First Bryant had to bide his time behind Deshaun Watson for two seasons, attempting a mere 18 passes as the backup in 2015 and 2016.
After taking over as Clemson’s starter in 2017, Bryant led his team to the College Football Playoffs with some solid passing numbers — 262-of-398 passing (65.8 percent) for 2,802 yards, 13 TDs and eight interceptions. He also rushed for 665 yards and 11 touchdowns during a 12-2 season.
But after a slow start in 2018, Bryant lost his starting job after only four games. The Lawrence hype train has yet to stop since then. Onlookers also lamented the fact that Bryant didn’t have beefier passing stats despite throwing to the likes of Hunter Renfrow, Ray-Ray McLeod and Deon Cain, as well as future NFL receivers Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and others.
At Mizzou, Bryant’s targets are not nearly as accomplished, but there’s a strong offensive line mostly intact from last season and a run game that could be among the SEC’s best. Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam is back from an injury-plagued season as an All-America candidate, and WRs Johnathon Johnson, Jalen Knox and Arkansas transfer Jonathan Nance form a solid, ascending group.
Bryant said he liked the fact that Dooley “catered” his play-calling to his quarterbacks’ strengths and that there’s “so much freedom within the offense.”
NFL scouts have not seen a pro-caliber passer from Bryant yet. But all it takes is one season to change minds. After all, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray was barely (if at all) on scouts’ radars this time last year, Duke’s Daniel Jones was little more than a curiosity and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins was a virtual unknown with 57 pass attempts to his name.
All three ended up as first-round picks.
That’s not likely Bryant’s eventual landing spot in the draft, although weirder things have happened. Plus, the NFL folks appear to be more interested in mobile quarterbacks who can also throw than they ever have been, and one of Dooley’s former charges with the Cowboys, Dak Prescott, helped spark that recent trend.
“Seeing Dak and seeing Tony [Romo] having that experience within the Cowboys’ offense, bringing [that offense] to Missouri, [Dooley] is going to make plays for you where you are comfortable,” Bryant said. “He’s not going to call anything that he’s comfortable with but the quarterback isn’t comfortable with.”
If Bryant takes a big step this season, he certainly could vault his standing with NFL scouts after just one season at Missouri. That’s what makes this pairing with his weird, new coach so fascinating.
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