From ‘Bambi’ to MVP: Austin Bryant an unheralded key to Clemson’s success

Sights and sounds from Clemson’s national championship media day

Football can wait. For now it's media day fun for Clemson as they head into the national championship.
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Football can wait. For now it's media day fun for Clemson as they head into the national championship.

Clemson has made the College Football Playoff four consecutive seasons. Although he doesn’t get the same recognition as fellow defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, Tigers senior Austin Bryant has been a part of them all.

Bryant is wrapping up a remarkable career at Clemson that includes him earning first-team All-American honors as a junior and All-ACC honors this season. He was named the Defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl last month and is a big reason why the Tigers are playing in the national title game for the third time in four years.

But before the 6-foot-6, 280-pound Bryant was terrorizing opposing offensive linemen and living in opponents’ backfields, his play was earning him a nickname from former defensive line coach Marion Hobby. Only it wasn’t a good one.

“He came in and he had a bad problem with falling. I don’t know if it was because he was clumsy or his legs were too weak at the time, but everybody called him Bambi,” Ferrell shared as he laughed. “Coach Hobby called him Bambi. It didn’t matter what he was doing. He could just be doing like a sprint and he would just fall. He had the worst feet ever when he was a freshman. All of that’s in the past now, but I just remember all the times of him falling and his helmet was too small. It was ridiculous.”

Bryant signed with the Tigers out of Thomas County Central High in Pavo, Georgia. He still remembers the first time he was called Bambi in 2015 trying to make a name for himself as a true freshman. He faced the first team offense during a practice early in the season and it did not end well.

“I was kind of getting knocked down on the ground a lot and (Hobby) looked over at me and called me Bambi. And did like a whole representation of Bambi. It was funny,” Bryant said while mimicking the motions of a deer. “I was hurt right then in the moment. It hurt my feelings a little bit.”

By the end of that freshman season Bryant was making plays on the biggest stage in college football. He had four tackles with half a sack in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma as Clemson topped the Sooners 37-17.

Bryant battled injuries but shared the title of the 12th Man of the Year on Clemson’s defense in 2016 and had his best season yet with 15.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in 2017.

He has 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks this year, and he had three tackles for loss and a pair of sacks while helping the Tigers to a victory in the Cotton Bowl as he earned MVP honors.

“I was ecstatic for him because a lot of times people can feel like Austin can get left out, and for what reason I don’t know,” Ferrell said. “The things that he’s battled through in his career here and just the mindset that he’s had to push through anything, just to see him have that success on a stage like that, it was huge for me to see. Especially because that’s been my best friend since we came on campus. So I was super happy.”

CBS Sports called Bryant the “forgotten man up front on Clemson’s loaded defense line,” listing the Ravens, Patriots, Packers, Redskins, Jets and Titans as potential NFL teams that might be fits for him in the upcoming draft. Walter Football projects him as a second- to fourth-round round pick.

While Bryant might be overlooked outside of Clemson’s program, defensive coordinator Brent Venables insists that is not the case inside of it.

“Very proud of him. He’s the quietest of that group, but he’s had a great year and takes a back seat to nobody. He’s been a great leader,” Venables said. “He’s ultra successful. He’s worked incredibly hard along the way. He may not be talked about outwardly outside of our football building, but inside we have great appreciation for Austin and all he’s done.”

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