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Quacking the Roster: WR Transfer Gary Bryant Jr

Film review of Bryant’s 2021 season at USC as starting wide receiver

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 UCLA at USC Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bryant was recruited to USC in the 2020 cycle as a high 4-star (.9766) in the 24/7 composite. The Trojans returned three of their four elite wide receivers from 2019 and the one they needed to replace was a tall outside receiver while Bryant is a 5’10” inside receiver, so he settled in for his true freshman year as a rotational inside guy and got the fifth most targets of the WRs. That season doesn’t count against his eligibility due to the covid holiday, and he took a redshirt in 2022, so he has three to play three remaining.

In 2021, the old WR room cleared out with the exception of Drake London, and Bryant had a breakout season among a new unit – 44 receptions for 579 yards and 7 touchdowns (tied with London for scoring). Due to some mismanagement of the roster, USC didn’t have enough playable tall outside receivers for their quasi-Air Raid system and so lined up Bryant at X or Z on about 40% of snaps. That complemented Memphis transfer WR Tahj Washington, who’s about the same height as Bryant but more of a possession receiver – he got a few more targets on shorter routes with a lower yards per reception average, so about the same total yards but just one TD. Not many people were paying attention to any of USC’s top three receivers, however, since the Trojans fired head coach Clay Helton after a week 2 loss to Stanford and the team spiraled to an otherwise forgettable 4-8 season, while constantly rotating between three different quarterbacks for little reason I could tell while reviewing the film.

London left for the NFL but Bryant and Washington returned for 2022. New head coach Lincoln Riley brought in two inside receiver transfers during the offseason, Jordan Addison from Pitt and Mario Williams from Oklahoma, and another possession receiver, Terrell Bynum from UW. In Riley’s offense there’s only room for three of these five guys, and effectively the new staff was pushing Bryant and Washington out despite their excellent 2021 production. Both elected to stay through Fall camp and fight for their jobs – Washington won his battle and is still with the team, but Bryant didn’t. He played a few minutes in the first couple games — I think just to put on film that he was fully healthy — then announced his intention to redshirt, hit the portal, and sat out the rest of 2022. (It’s beyond the scope of this project to assess the wisdom of any of these players’ or coaches’ decisions, though given the way the season played out it’s clear that optimizing the marginal value of the inside receiver unit was hardly USC’s most pressing concern.)

As such, the film that we have for evaluating Bryant isn’t quite ideal – just one full season on a bad team with an interim coach catching balls from three QBs, frequently out of position on the outside, and for some reason he wasn’t targeted at all in the first or last game.

What we do have, however, are 62 targets during meaningful play, which is enough of a sample from which to draw conclusions, and the tape is incredible. His talent as a second-year player jumps off the screen, even given all the above handicaps, and it’s astonishing to me that USC let him go. As a deep-field burner on post routes out of the slot I don’t think there was a better receiver in the conference in 2021:

(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)

  1. :00 – This is zone and there’s no hope once the safety peels off to deal with the outside receiver, because that linebacker’s never going to catch Bryant. He actually has to slow up a bit for a slightly underthrown ball from the freshman QB Jaxson Dart replacing Kedon Slovis in this game. I cut out the initial angle from this and the following clip because the camera operators didn’t get the entire route and to fit the video in the 1-minute hosting limit.
  2. :13 – The safety has inside leverage to start out with here and should be in position to break this up, but Bryant crosses his face and just beats him with stronger hands. The QB could have led him a little more, that burst off the break had broken the DB.
  3. :33 – The middle of the field is open and the box safety bites on the play-action fake so the only player who can stop this is the deep safety, who needs to come down into the c-2 deep hole faster than Bryant can run up into it. He can’t.
  4. :40 – If the pass rush allowed the QB to extend the play then Bryant on the post was a nightmare, since he was going to get behind any defense with extra time.

The biggest mismatch that Bryant created — and why it was so frustrating that the Trojans ever took him out of the slot — was that there simply wasn’t a single safety in the conference capable of covering him in man, and secondaries using disguised coverages weren’t much better. Some examples:

  1. :00 – USC is playing in tight, and the play design is hoping this would be man so that the DBs collide when Bryant cuts under to the flat, but instead the CB just drops to it fine. That appropriate coverage would limit less gifted receivers on this short catch to maybe 3 yards, but Bryant has the acceleration and body control to stay in bounds and put in a stiffarm to get 7 out of it.
  2. :07 – The safety has outside leverage in man on this corner route, but Bryant still gets way past him and beats him to the pylon by two paces.
  3. :35 – Pre-snap motion — curiously rare in this offense — reveals the man coverage, and the DB almost smacks into his teammate over the TE. Bryant just dusts him on the out pattern.
  4. :51 – USC is completely unbalanced to the boundary, which meant a screen every time (I don’t know why BYU never picked up on this, in fact the Trojans ran the same play sequentially and the defense still wasn’t ready, part of the reason my 2022 BYU preview was somewhat dismissive of the Cougars’ defense). With a couple of decent blocks in, yardage is just a question of Bryant’s acceleration vs the safety’s ability to run to the sideline and hit him – he nets 12 yards.

In addition to the his quick acceleration to top-end speed for deep routes, Bryant also has has the short-area burst and immediate change-of-direction ability for screens and short routes when playing out of the slot:

  1. :00 – Nice initial sell downfield to get the DBs to start dropping, then reverses fast to catch this tunnel screen, then flips again for the endzone. With the TE and RT doing their jobs, the only way to stop this is if #28 DB Oladapo (one of the few 2023 returners from OSU’s 13th ranked F+ defense last year) can flip and accelerate as well to hit Bryant first. He doesn’t.
  2. :08 – Not a great block here from Washington, so Bryant just has to accelerate and put his shoulder into the CB to get 8 yards.
  3. :15 – The short crosser is a typical hot against a six-man blitz like this, and Bryant has a big cushion from the safety over him. He simply runs away from that DB, then dips around future Trojan #4 CB Roland-Wallace for the 1st down.
  4. :23 – I think this was an improvised route on the scramble, I don’t have it anywhere else on my charts. It’s another blitz and Bryant starts running a crosser, but the safety has good leverage on him and ASU has left one of their backers in, so he reverses and runs back to the sideline where there’s open grass. The DB can’t change his momentum as quickly.

I was also pretty impressed with Bryant’s toughness. While I have two drops recorded that I think are his fault (under 4% per target so better than normal, in my experience), I don’t have any fumbles or pass break-ups which stem from the ball getting knocked loose from a hard hit, and he took a lot of them from defenders trying to take advantage of his stature. I also thought his QBs hung him out to dry a lot and found myself wincing a lot watching this tape, though he always popped right up. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Bryant has to climb the ladder for this high throw and the DB goes for his legs, but he hangs onto it for a big gain.
  2. :13 – I had bunch of these on my sheet, where the tackler tried spinning Bryant around a few times and throwing him to the ground. It never amounted to anything, but I thought an example should go in for representation.
  3. :23 – Bryant and these DBs were jawing for the entire game, I think I know why.
  4. :43 – This was ruled six inches short of a TD after a lengthy review, robbing Bryant of the outright season scoring lead over London. I think he deserved it on effort alone.

All of the above clips have been with Bryant in the slot, which I think is his natural position on the field. However, Helton’s long mismanagement of the roster had left the Trojans without any viable six-foot-plus bluechip receivers besides London in 2021, which was a bizarre situation for then-OC Graham Harrell’s Air Raid passing tree which required multiple tall outside WRs. USC’s solution to this problem was to line up Bryant as an outside receiver, with about 30% of his snaps at X and 10% at Z, which will comprise the rest of the clips in this article.

Bryant’s outside performance was pretty good, just not as good compared to when he’s on the inside: he goes from 10.0 yards per target in the slot to 8.84 as a flanker, and the incompletion rate climbs from 30% per target to 36%. From reviewing the film, I think there are two main reasons for this: first, taller cornerbacks were able to leverage a size advantage to more effectively cover him, and second, the actual number of playcalls that had him on the outside were far more limited and predictable (it was a dead giveaway based on who the receiver next to him was and where that WR lined up). Some examples:

  1. :00 – This is one of three flag routes as the Z that USC had Bryant attempt against #1 CB Wright in this game, they all ended in incompletions against the now-NFL corner. Here he just gets worked to the sideline by the bigger athlete.
  2. :08 – This is a similar screen to the above one, but because it’s run from the outside Bryant has way more lateral territory to cover and the safety has time to get to him and stop it from going big.
  3. :22 – Same route and corner as the above clip I linked on twitter, but this time the defender’s swipe is timed just right and he knocks the ball down. The reason tall outside receivers are preferred is that the pass angle can be shallower and corners can’t do this – Bryant has to not only burn the defender but also hope that he misses his last-ditch swat.
  4. :29 – Here Bryant’s gotten past the corner in man, he’s got enough space against the sideline, the swat attempt fails, he’s reaching for the the ball … and it’s off his fingertips. This is why fades are just designed for longer athletes.

While his deep sideline routes from the outside were a mixed bag, all of the qualities that make Bryant a great inside receiver – acceleration, burst, physicality – served him well on the outside running comebacks, digs, and slants for consistent intermediate gains. Other than the skinny post from the slot, naturally, these were Bryant’s most productive downfield routes on a per-play basis on my tally sheet. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Big cushion from the corner who respects his speed, then he plants at a dead stop a yard past the sticks and makes a Dillon Mitchell-esque dip to dodge the hit and get the 1st down.
  2. :20 – The corner is giving a seven-yard cushion, Bryant runs 15 yards to his toes till he flips his hips, then breaks him off hard, comes back for the ball, and breaks him again. A lot of jawing after this one.
  3. :30 – Just a great contested catch on an in-route going to the ground, with the corner stuck to him the whole way.
  4. :38 – The reader can only see Bryant’s shoes at the top of the screen at the snap thanks to ESPN’s obnoxiously tight camerawork, but they still catch a sweet stutter to get the DB to step outside just before this slant in right behind the backer following the RB in motion. Great effort and body control to power through three tacklers and extend for a touchdown.