Bryant adjusts from paint to gridiron

Danny Daly

When someone explains a decision by saying “all my friends were doing it,” it’s usually a sign of trouble. Corbin Bryant is an exception.

Without peer pressure, Bryant would not have gotten an athletic scholarship. All of his friends at Morgan Park High School in Chicago played football, while he was on the basketball team for his first three years. After a lot of urging, Bryant decided to join everyone else on the gridiron.

“I was the only one playing basketball,” he said. “I wanted to do something fun my senior year, so I joined the team. I was pretty good at it.”

Four years later, Bryant is one of Northwestern’s starting defensive tackles. He broke into the lineup for the first time against Syracuse last season and recorded 28 tackles, 5.5 of which were for a loss, before tearing his ACL against Michigan.

Numbers like that are not typical of a player who has spent more time on a basketball court than a football field.

“You would never know,” said Marty Long, who is in his second year as the team’s defensive line coach. “You would have thought he’s played (football) since the second grade.”

When Bryant was at Morgan Park, he did not even play on the defensive line. Bryant took most of his snaps at linebacker, tight end and wide receiver for coach Lexie Spurlock. Now it’s hard to picture the 6-foot-4 Bryant lined up in the slot, since he has bulked up to 285 pounds.

Bryant’s friends were not just the reason he started playing football – they indirectly helped him get recruited. Bryant had previously planned to apply to schools through regular admissions and choose one based on academics.

“One day, some of the scouts came in,” Bryant said. “They were looking at some of my friends, and they put the tape on and saw me. The word just got out.”

Northern Illinois, the alma matter of both of Bryant’s parents, was the first team to offer him a scholarship, and Bryant decided to commit early to coach Joe Novak and the Huskies. But that was before the Wildcats really got involved.

Coach Pat Fizgerald credits longtime secondary coach Jerry Brown with spotting Bryant. Spurlock also put Bryant on NU’s radar.

“Coach Spurlock down at Morgan Park is as good of an evaluator of talent as any high school coach in the country,” Fitzgerald said. “He called us early in the year and said, ‘I’ve got this kid coming out; I don’t know if he can play but I’ll get you the film after the year.'”

Fitzgerald, then the linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator, liked what he saw. NU met with Bryant and his family and gave him a chance to play in the Big Ten. After much consideration, Bryant switched his commitment.

The adjustment to Division-I football was not an easy one.

“The hardest thing was learning the techniques and getting up to the speed of the game,” Bryant said. “That’s the biggest thing that you have to know about the college football game. It just goes so much faster than high school.”

Bryant admitted to never lifting weights before he started his football career. By the time Bryant arrived in Evanston, he was big enough that Fitzgerald inserted him at defensive end. Despite having just played one year of high school football, Bryant earned a spot on the Cats’ roster as a true freshman and saw action in the first two games.

Then Bryant broke his leg in practice and missed the rest of the year, receiving a medical hardship from the NCAA.

“It was real tough, because that’s the first time I had really gotten hurt,” Bryant said. “I had to come back during spring ball and prove myself again, because during that summer I had proven myself to be a pretty good pass rusher. I gained a little weight, so I had to move inside (to defensive tackle).”

Suffering two major injuries and switching positions twice is a lot to ask of anyone, much less someone who is fairly new to the sport. Bryant did not let that derail him, though, and his strong work ethic and family support have allowed him to persevere. Bryant, whose father is a pastor, also credited his faith with keeping him focused and grounded.

So far this season, Bryant has been one of the Cats’ most consistent performers, and Long said he rated the highest of all defensive linemen against Purdue. When Bryant is at his best, he makes a major impact, especially for star defensive end Corey Wootton.

“Corbin has tremendous quickness, tremendous strength,” Wootton said. “He’s really able to get in the backfield, and on pass situations he really works the opposite guard or center and gets a good pass rush.”

And Bryant could not have developed his ability to get to the quarterback without his basketball roots.

“I had a pretty good crossover back in the day, so I still have the quickness,” Bryant said.

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