Hunter Bryant is No. 1.
Literally, that’s the number pasted on both sides of the 6-foot-2, 239-pound junior’s purple jersey. It’s the number that got progressively smaller as he separated from Utah’s secondary for a 40-yard score last Saturday. It’s the number that hurdled sophomore defensive back R.J. Hubert along the way. It’s the number that stutter-stepped 5 yards past the line of scrimmage in the second quarter, inducing a Julian Blackmon stumble that yielded another 34-yard score. It’s literally a number, and it might also be a spoiler.
Come next April, might Bryant be the first tight end selected in the 2020 NFL draft?
“I can tell you right now, I think Hunter Bryant would be the first of the senior tight ends selected,” said Rob Rang, a talent evaluator for NFLDraftScout.com. “This is not a particularly impressive senior class at the position, so I would expect a number of underclassmen to take advantage of that. He quite possibly could be one of them, given his talent and the way the NFL is trending now towards these guys who may be a little bit lacking in the prototypical size but are absolute playmakers. He certainly is that.”
UW’s most dynamic Dawg showed it last weekend, finishing with six catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns in the 33-28 loss to Utah. Quarterback Jacob Eason had a 135.4 passer rating when targeting his junior tight end.
Against arguably the Pac-12’s premier defense, the Eastside Catholic alum showcased superior hands, athleticism, speed and route-running.
But, then again, that’s nothing new.
“To me, as a freshman he stood out,” Rang said. “I’ve had my eye on Hunter Bryant — I don’t know — since day one, since the first time I watched him play. I thought, ‘This guy’s a difference-maker. He’s a future NFL player.’ So whether he decides to come out this year or he decides to return, I think he has a pro future ahead of him.
“That’s why I would caution him to make sure he does his due diligence. Because that is something that’s there for him. He needs to make sure he takes advantage of everything that college football has to offer before he gives up that opportunity. But at the same time, I do feel like his talent speaks for itself and if he were to make himself eligible, NFL teams would be excited to have an opportunity to get him.”
That’s just it — will the NFL be granted that opportunity? As a true junior, Bryant is eligible to return in 2020. Because of knee injuries, he played in just 14 total games in his first two seasons. The chiseled pass-catcher said on Tuesday that “every time I put on pads or put on cleats I appreciate it. Just a chance to go out on the field and play again with my brothers is an incredible feeling and one I cherish a lot more now, now that I’d been out for so long.”
Bryant certainly doesn’t sound sick of the college experience. But, with three regular-season games remaining, has he allowed himself to consider the professional possibilities?
“I’m just focused on Oregon State right now,” Bryant said on Tuesday.
Through nine games, the Issaquah product ranks second nationally in tight-end receiving yards (557), while adding 36 catches, three touchdowns and 15.5 yards per reception. And on Friday night, he’ll face an Oregon State defense that currently sits 91st nationally in opponent completion percentage (62.6%), 100th in passing defense (253.1 yards per game), 106th in opponent passing touchdowns (18), 108th in opponent yards per attempt (8.2) and 118th in opponent pass-efficiency rating (153.46). Statistically, UW’s final three opponents — Oregon State, Colorado and Washington State — rank in the back half of the Pac-12 in most pass-defense metrics.
So, professional possibilities? Bryant is wise to shove those to the backburner (for now). He has at least three more games this fall to star in a steadily improving UW offense — and, perhaps, improve his draft stock along the way.
“I think I’m just a smarter player overall (this season) — how I know the game and look at the game, how I can recognize defenses and all that,” Bryant said. “That’s been the biggest step for me that I’ve taken.”
He’s smarter — and healthier, too. Bryant repeated on Tuesday that he feels “incredible.” Rang said, on that front, that “I don’t think there’s anything in his past that is going to scare teams off too much at this point.”
Bryant’s only potential blemishes, it seems, are his relative lack of size and somewhat significant injury history.
But if he plays well, and tests well, he might soon be No. 1 in more ways than one.
“Any time you’re an underclassman making that kind of a jump, you had better be confident that you’re going to work out exceptionally well (at the NFL Combine and pro day),” Rang said. “That would be the only concern. If you are an undersized player, you have to wow during the athletic testing or during the white board, showing off your film study. Just listening to him speak, I’ve been impressed with him in terms of his intelligence, especially when it comes to the game itself and all those things.
“So I think he’ll do well in that regard, and I think he’ll do well working out. I just don’t know if he’s going to do exceptionally well. I see him as more of a 50 to 75 overall kind of a player (in the draft), rather than a top-32 overall type of player.”
And if he were to leave, Chris Petersen and Co. would be tasked with filling a problematic hole in the middle of the Husky offense. Besides Bryant, UW currently has four scholarship tight ends on its roster: sophomore Cade Otton, junior Jacob Kizer, redshirt freshman Devin Culp and converted offensive lineman Corey Luciano. Two more tight ends — Mark Redman and Mason West — are currently committed in the 2020 class, with the program looking to add a third.
Perhaps Bryant will stay and stutter-step a few more Pac-12 defensive backs into the dirt. Perhaps he’ll decide to hurdle helpless defenders inside Husky Stadium in his senior season. Or maybe he won’t. Maybe he has four more games left as a Washington Husky.
Either way, according to Petersen, he’s exceeded expectations.
“You just don’t know how guys are going to adjust and handle the whole thing,” Petersen said. “But we certainly thought that (he was capable of this production), and a lot of people did that were recruiting him. But like I always say, some guys are maybe a little better than you thought. Some guys are not quite (as good), or whatever.
“And I think just his ball skills and how he’s going to compete at this level is probably better than we thought, because you really don’t know until you get them here. But he can go get the ball.”