Originally created 11/11/05

Georgia Southern's Bryant adjusts to new hype



STATESBORO, Ga. - Once A.J. Bryant was asked about earning All-American honors as a backup, he shook his head, shrugged his shoulders then smiled.

It almost leaves the Bushnell, Fla. native speechless, but for only a second.

"A lot of people come up and say, 'You didn't start? Why not?'" Bryant said. "That's a long story. But the coaches put me in great situations and I took advantage."

Coming off a six interception season, Bryant wore The Sports Network's and Associated Press' third-team Division I-AA All-America labels into this season along with his newest tag - Georgia Southern's starting free safety.

He's a senior with a basketball player's physique - 6-foot-5, 205 pounds. And while his interceptions are down, his tackles are way up.

In 10 games this year, Bryant has the most tackles by a safety with 64 since David Young's 77 in a 14-game season in 2001.

That tackling ability will be needed as the Eagles (7-3) host Morehead State in the last regular season game on Saturday.

"The last three weeks, (Bryant) has been more physical at the point of attack," coach Mike Sewak said. "(After the Furman game), he had a little stiffness in his neck. That's how you play that position."

Bryant admittedly wasn't always willing to stick his neck out a year ago. Particularly weighing 15 pounds less.

"Some times you don't have the physical attributes," he said. "There's no use for a 190-pounder taking on a 230-pound fullback. It's like a semi hitting a Volkswagen."

Last season, four-year starting senior James Young, a three-time All-Southern Conference performer, took on the traffic and as a result started ahead of Bryant.

But Georgia Southern coaches still loved Bryant's ability to play free safety, roaming from sideline to sideline like a windshield wiper during pass plays.

His sticky hands from his South Sumter (Fla.) High days as a wide receiver and ball-hawking abilities led to the interceptions.

Bryant had two picks against Western Carolina and Florida International last season. Against the Golden Panthers, he returned one 73 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.

The conference-leading six interceptions took Bryant straight to All-America.

This season, Bryant has been needed in run-support. The last four games, he has 38 tackles. The first six, only 26.

He has two interceptions as well.

"He has continually gotten better week by week and the Furman game was probably the best game he's had since he's been here," defensive coordinator Joe Tresey said. "He's fitting in where he needs to fit and making our defense better."

Tresey's praise of Bryant's efforts against Furman probably mirrors the Eagles' focus on positioning. Bryant recorded only six tackles - his fewest in almost a month - but the defense held the Paladins more than 100 yards and 14 points under their season averages.

Maybe Bryant is surprising himself. In high school he played quarterback, wide receiver and safety.

He shunned offers from South Florida, Central Florida, Lehigh and Eastern Kentucky and came to Georgia Southern hoping to catch passes.

"They told me they just had a great receiver (Chris Johnson with school records 673 receiving yards and eight touchdown catches in 2000) and they needed another one," Bryant said.

He made a catch in the Georgia-Florida All-Star Game - an interception - and found himself defending passes in the secondary.

But it might be where Bryant's future lies.

"I know (professional scouts) love his range and size," Sewak said. "You can't hide 6-5."