COLUMBIA, Mo. — The highlight of Kelly Bryant’s official visit to Missouri was a film session.
While staffers, coaches and players were trying to roll out the proverbial red carpet for college football’s biggest free agent at the time, it was a film session with offensive coordinator Derek Dooley that helped to completely change Bryant’s preconceived — and mostly dismissive — notions about Mizzou.
Even with the Tigers limping away from a dud of a 15-14 loss to Kentucky — an Oct. 27 game in which Mizzou’s offense spent most of its time going in reverse — Bryant said he “saw all I needed to see” from the Tigers, and the more he talked to Dooley during that detailed film session, the more he was drawn to the program.
“I’m from a small town in South Carolina,” Bryant told ESPN in June. “I would have never thought I’d be playing ball out here.
“It’s crazy how things work out.”
Mizzou faithful can thank Dooley for being the center of Bryant’s attraction to a completely foreign school and his growth in Columbia since his arrival last December. Dooley knows all too well how to manage that same feeling of renewal that Bryant is currently dealing with after transferring from Clemson following a 4-0 start last season. After being fired as Tennessee’s head coach following a disappointing 15-21 three-year tenure, Dooley had to rebuild by becoming an assistant coach at the pro level before arriving at Mizzou before the 2018 season.
Both are humbled and bonding over their shared disappointments, which has helped them relate to each other. It’s something Bryant said motivates him even more because his own success will help fix the outside perception of Dooley’s coaching ability.
“He has a little spunk to him. I like him,” Bryant said of Dooley. “He has a chip on his shoulder — more like a boulder — and we both do. I like playing for a guy like that.
“We’ve basically been through a lot of the struggle, not seeing the success that we wanted to see, having to deal with some downs and some lows, and just trying to get back to that groove and being in that good place. We have a lot that we can have in common.”
As their relationship has grown over the last half year, Dooley has made sure that while he attempts to make Bryant a better quarterback, he’s also making sure Bryant’s confidence doesn’t dip.
Still, Dooley says Bryant’s healing is a daily process that is compounded by being an uber-competitor.
“I think we underestimate the scars that some of these young men get,” Dooley said. “And we say, ‘Oh well, he’s tough, just move on.’ But he left Clemson, and big picture, he got beat out. I told him how many other college football teams that happened to. It just so happened that a great player came in, and there’s no shame in that. Certainly, he gets a lot of criticism. He’s not immune to it. But when you combine those things and then you transfer, there’s a mental component that needs to get shaped and worked on every day.”
It would have been easy for Bryant to have gone to Auburn or even Arkansas to run familiar spread offenses suited for his more athletic skill set.
Even with new coach Mack Brown coming in at North Carolina, few would have questioned Bryant heading up the road to Chapel Hill. Bryant visited all three of those schools, along with Mississippi State and Missouri, before picking Mizzou.
Each school had an appealing depth chart, with the opportunity to play immediately. But the challenge was the biggest at Mizzou — the offense, the distance and the unfamiliarity all appealed to Bryant.
Despite sitting behind All-American Deshaun Watson for two years and being benched for freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence last year at Clemson, Bryant didn’t want the easy route from college football to the NFL. He wanted yet another challenge.
Mizzou immediately gave him that with its distant location, but Dooley — who had spent five years as the Dallas Cowboys’ receivers coach and just helped departing Missouri star Drew Lock throw for 3,498 yards and 28 touchdowns in just one year of work with him — also offered Bryant welcome discomfort with more of a pro-style approach.
“That would be the easy route to go [to a school with a familiar offense],” Bryant said. “I just wanted to challenge myself and learn a whole new offense.
“Where I want to be [playing in the NFL], I’m going to have to do it anyway, so why not go about getting a head start as quickly as possible?”
Naturally, Bryant experienced highs and lows over the 15 spring practices. His impressive arm strength and elusive running ability really impressed Dooley and head coach Barry Odom. While most expect Bryant to really move this offense with his legs — a joke around the program this spring was that Bryant was too fast to even be tagged down in his non-contact jersey — Odom said it was Bryant’s ability to throw the deep ball better than expected that really caught his eye.
“It’s going to our help our offense so much in the way he was able to complete the downfield throw,” Odom said.
But Bryant’s arm and legs couldn’t solve everything. Chemistry with receivers, linemen, running backs and tight ends doesn’t blossom overnight, especially when you’re a quarterback running a totally different offense. Bryant went from years of experience with his teammates to zero on-field relationships and brand-new ones off the field. And he was also dealing with a playbook full of new concepts and verbiage.
“Really, he’s learning a whole new language,” Dooley said.
Dooley spent the spring experimenting — throwing a lot at Bryant, watching how he reacted and how he tried to figure out stuff on his own.
Bryant adjusted to the offensive concepts faster than Odom expected, but there was still some pressing. While Bryant wasn’t the type of player to come in and bark orders to claim his spot in the team hierarchy, he tried to earn trust by making great plays … all the time. When things didn’t work right, Bryant beat himself up too often.
“He’s got the ability, he’s got the attitude, he’s got the demeanor that we need at the quarterback position.” Missouri coach Barry Odom
That’s where Dooley stepped in and slowed his quarterback down.
“Kelly’s prideful, he’s competitive,” Dooley said. “So it’s hard, sometimes, to get honest feedback. But the quicker I can get honest feedback on things, the better able I am to coach him and adapt to what he’s doing.
“He’s gotta work on himself, and I’ve gotta help him stay confident. Every now and then I have to remind him. I say, ‘Hey, man, you’re Kelly Bryant. You’re 12-2 and you’ve been to the College Football Playoff. Not many quarterbacks can say that. So if you throw a bad pass, who cares? We’re going to go win the game, that’s what matters. It’s something that we have to reinforce all the time.”
And when Bryant gets clicking, people notice. Remember, he holds the Clemson record for Top 25 wins as a starting quarterback (six) and threw for nearly 3,000 yards two seasons ago. That quarterback has shown up with simple-looking 40-yard heaves on the move in practice. The elusiveness that propelled him to 665 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns two years ago has flashed in plays this spring.
“That’s kind of exciting to see,” tight end Albert Okwuegbunam said, “just his ability to extend plays like that. I was like, ‘Man, I’m excited.’ It made me think that we’re going to be a hard offense to stop. It’s just really cool to see your quarterback extend plays and do things like that.”
When Bryant keeps his composure, Odom has seen exactly the kind of presence the position needs, especially in the pressure cooker that is the SEC.
“He’s got the ability, he’s got the attitude, he’s got the demeanor that we need at the quarterback position,” Odom said. “He and Drew both have some similar experiences earlier in their career that they wanted to prove people wrong. I think that motivation for him is going to work.”
Bryant committed to Mizzou on Odom’s birthday (Nov. 26), but a couple of months later, he faced more disappointment.
On Jan. 31, Odom gathered his team to inform it that the NCAA had imposed a one-year bowl ban on the Tigers, after the school self-reported that a tutor had completed coursework for six athletes, including one football player.
Players and coaches were stunned. Hardly anyone talked, and quietly everyone — coaches and players alike — wondered whether they’d be saying goodbye to Bryant just as soon as they’d said hello. But shortly after cooling off with his teammates in the locker room, Bryant stood up to say he was staying.
It was the first time he really addressed his team since arriving, and while some players were shocked by his decision, a surge of energy swelled in the locker room after Bryant, who could have left to make things easier on himself, decided to endure this with his new team.
“We were all really happy that our quarterback has that attitude about this team, about his school,” Okwuegbunam said, wearing the team’s gray #US shirt symbolizing Mizzou’s focus this year. “It meant a lot to us.
“That’s who we’re playing for this season. That’s just what we’re about.”
Bryant admits that he didn’t want to go through the recruiting process again, but he also felt this was another chance at growth. Setbacks were nothing new to Bryant, and he wanted to see this one through with his new family.
“Since I committed and got here, it’s been a family that has embraced me — a kid that’s had to go through so much prior to coming here,” he said. “I didn’t want to go through that again, and why leave a good situation that I have right here?”
Bryant found this situation by painfully leaving another. Two weeks after Bryant passed for 205 yards in a 28-26 win over Texas A&M, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney informed him that he was starting Lawrence, whose reps were fairly equal with Bryant’s to that point.
Bryant says he was “blindsided” by the decision and wasn’t treated fairly, but he understands it was a “business decision.” He still has a text chain with a large group of former Clemson teammates blowing up his phone every day. A handful of his former Clemson teammates went to Columbia for Mizzou’s spring game.
While he hasn’t spoken to Swinney since he left Clemson on his birthday (Sept. 25), he insists he’d be open to talking with him if the coach tried again: “Oh, of course.”
At the time of Bryant’s transfer, Swinney said that he didn’t agree with his decision but respected it and wished him well.
“Obviously saddened and disappointed that he’s chosen to leave the team,” Swinney said, “but I really have absolutely nothing bad that I can say about Kelly Bryant. He’s one of the best young people that I’ve ever been around. And even though I don’t think this is a great decision, I certainly respect it. It doesn’t change anything I feel for Kelly. I love him, care about him. I wish him nothing but the best.”
Clemson players and staff members received their ACC championship, College Football Playoff and national championship rings in April, and while Bryant started four games for Clemson last year, he didn’t receive any. Bryant said he’d certainly take them if offered, but when asked if he would send a ring to Bryant, Swinney told ESPN in July, “No.”
Bryant said leaving Clemson was one of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make, but he doesn’t dwell on it. To help himself move forward, Bryant created a visual reminder of his goals for the present and future.
Shortly after arriving in Columbia, Bryant started writing down goals and small reminders of who he is and what he wants to accomplish at Mizzou. To make sure he saw them every day, he wrote them on his bathroom mirror.
“Just looking at that and visualizing has been a big thing,” he said. “Seeing myself when that last game is played — no matter when it is — I just want to be able to look back and be like I did everything that I could do to put myself and my team in a situation to be successful and I enjoyed this year.”
Bryant’s blue Wren High School windbreaker flaps a little as a light breeze temporarily cuts through the 90-plus-degree heat bearing down on Columbia. Even halfway across the country, Bryant keeps his home close to his heart.
Though he’s adapting to his new surroundings well and embracing Midwest living, he isn’t immune to homesickness. He’s still maneuvering through Columbia’s social scene and making nature hikes a new part of his routine. He’s getting used to Kansas City barbecue but still prefers Carolina barbecue “because of that [vinegar] sauce, man.”
Bryant would love to play for a national championship, but he jokes that he’d be perfectly fine with 12-0 … or the Heisman. He doesn’t have time to worry about things he can’t control because has a new team to lead and a new offense to master.
“Whatever [the team needs] me to do, I’ll do it,” he said. “If they need me to run 30 times [in a game], I’ll run [30 times]. If they need me to pass 100 times, I’ll pass [100 times]. I’m a guy that’s going to put the team before me. I’m a guy that’s going to be all out, despite any situation, any call.
“I want to put myself into position to be one of the best to play here at Mizzou.”