By Eric Boynton
CLEMSON, S.C. — He’s far from being a forgotten man, but underappreciated outside the Clemson program certainly could be a label applied to defensive end Austin Bryant, a long mainstay on one of the nation’s most fierce defensive lines.
His numbers remained fairly consistent from last season — when several organizations honored him with All-American nods, including first team by the Football Writers Association of America, and he was selected All-ACC Second-Team. But when the postseason awards started being unveiled last month, his name was conspicuously absent, although he did earn third-team all-conference, while his linemates cleaned up.
Fellow end Clelin Ferrell and tackle Christian Wilkins were the top defensive vote getters for the All-ACC squad, where they were joined on the first team by tackle Dexter Lawrence. All three were named to one of the major All-America teams while Bryant was left off. Bryant’s also rarely mentioned as first-round material in the many national NFL mock drafts, where his three teammates are fixtures among the top 32 picks.
The 22-year-old Bryant pays no mind to the relative lack of attention.
“Whether it be honors or whatever it is, that’s stuff people vote on so there’s nothing I can control,” Bryant said. “I can only prepare to play my best each and every Saturday and I believe I’ve done that. I don’t ever go out there trying to prove people wrong, I always try to prove myself right. I know the type of player I am and I’m confident in myself and that’s what I hang my hat on.”
Bryant felt nothing in the way of validation when he was named Most Outstanding Defensive Player in Clemson’s 30-3 Cotton Bowl win against Notre Dame. The 6-foot-6, 280-pounder registered a team-leading six tackles, along with game highs of three tackles for loss and two sacks, to help hold Notre Dame to a season-low 248 total yards.
“I feel like I’ve played better than I have last year,” Bryant said. “That’s really all the vindication that I needed, just to see my progression from last year until now.”
Ferrell, winner of the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, says Bryant is given a ton of credit in-house for all he does for one of the country’s best units, but he doesn’t understand the lack of notoriety from outside the team’s inner sanctum. After posting 58 tackles with 15.5 for loss and 8.5 sacks a year ago, Bryant currently has 41, 13.5, and eight despite Clemson using a heavy rotation of players.
“I don’t feel he’s underappreciated on this team, but by outside sources, the snubs that he’s gotten, I don’t know what people are looking at,” Ferrell said. “I don’t know why he hasn’t gotten all the accolades that some of us have gotten on the defensive line. Maybe it’s just because people pick favorites, but he’s clearly underappreciated by outside sources. Everybody on this team knows what he brings to the table.”
Bryant, whose 20 career sacks is one away from solo 10th at the school, has played on the winningest senior class in program history, going 54-4 with four playoff appearances, three times reaching the national championship game and winning it in 2016. Along with Wilkins and Ferrell, he mulled over an early departure to the NFL last year before the trio all decided to return for one final ride. Now they’re exactly in the position for which they’d hoped.
“It’s an incredible opportunity so we don’t take it lightly at all,” Bryant said. “This year has been awesome and I love this place with everything in my heart. I wouldn’t want to do what I did with any other group of guys. I really believe this is the most special group of people and I don’t take it for granted. That’s what I’ll remember the most, not all the games we won, but the people I did it with. That’s what I’m grateful for.”