AUBURN, Alabama — The thought of not playing a bowl game this season never crossed Big Kat Bryant’s mind, even way back in the summer, when the prospects of playing a 2020 season at all were grim. Bryant’s certainly not going to let this opportunity slip by him now.
He desperately craves another game to prove himself — some consolation and resolution — after what’s been a frustrating senior campaign.
For Bryant, a senior team captain, the Citrus Bowl against Northwestern is more than just another game. It could be his last game at Auburn. Maybe he has his eyes on the NFL, maybe he wants to utilize the NCAA’s free year of eligibility and return for 2021.
Either way, Bryant wants a strong finish to wash out the taste of a sour senior season.
Bryant was named second team All-SEC last week, sure. But he’s been nagged by injuries since Week 1 and has yet to perform to the standard he set for himself when he vowed to be a bigger factor at his defensive end spot in the offseason.
Just by the tone of his voice when he responded to a question Wednesday about what it would mean to close out the year with a big showing in Orlando, it was apparent Bryant has been irritated by the setbacks he’s been dealt and dissatisfied with his personal performance in 2020.
“Going into this game, it’s big motivation,” Bryant said. “You know, I got hurt at the beginning of the year. So for me, it’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. I’m trying to finish as strong as I possibly can because you know it’s been a rocky road for me, and it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to.
“Like I say, it’s all about trying to finish as strong as I can. Been working towards it and for it. It’s just what I do on the field now.”
Bryant was hit with ankle injury in Auburn’s season-opening win against Kentucky, then later sustained a minor, undisclosed injury in the middle of the season. He missed the Arkansas game in Week 3 and played limited snaps for the next few weeks.
Once he started to regain his health and confidence, Bryant became a playmaker in the second half of the season, which is what led to his All-SEC nod. He snagged an interception in Auburn’s blowout win over LSU — the fourth takeaway of his career — and registered three sacks over Auburn’s final four games of the season. Bryant dragged the quarterback down on the final defensive play of the regular season against Mississippi State, just a few hours after he walked across the stage during his graduation ceremony in Auburn.
After the sack, Bryant went straight to his former head coach on the sideline. Gus Malzahn met him halfway and leaped into the air with Bryant to celebrate. Everyone on the team knows how badly Bryant wants to succeed.
“I was like bro, just keep playing, keep playing, it’s going to come,” sophomore pass-rusher Derick Hall said of Bryant after the Mississippi State win. “He showed up. I was very excited and happy for him, just knowing all the stuff he’s been through, his injury this year. The leadership he has for us as a defensive line, the leadership he has for the defense — it was tremendous for him to get that last sack. I was very happy for him.”
Bryant has long set a high bar for himself at Auburn. Before his junior year, he said he wanted to be “the next Derrick Brown.” Last offseason, after he led the team in quarterback hurries in 2019 but was unable to consistently generate sacks, he said he felt he was ready to take a Marlon Davidson-like step forward and become an elite defensive end his senior year.
No one is harder on Bryant than Bryant. But he’s also one of the most upbeat, vocal and overall crucial leaders in the locker room for Auburn.
As one of two defensive team captains — and the only one who was on the field with his teammates for the majority of the season after senior linebacker K.J. Britt suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2 — his contributions extended well beyond what he does on the field.
“Kat has been like a big brother to me,” freshman defensive end Colby Wooden said this month. “He’s helped me in every aspect of the game. He’s helped me with learning blocks and how to defend blocks, how to pass-rush and what to look for.
“And off the field you can’t ask for a better guy. Every Monday I’m at his house, watching film and barbecuing and eating. He’s my big brother. He’s meant a lot to me.”
As badly as he wants to dominate against Northwestern and be a big reason why his Tigers come away with a victory in Orlando, Bryant also knows his leadership amid a coaching change — an overall confusing and stressful time for players, especially the younger ones — will be just as, if not more critical for Auburn’s success than a sack or a big play on Friday.
“It’s been real hard just trying to keep guys in tune and motivated,” Bryant said, “because, I mean, they’ve never really been through anything like this. So as a leader on this team, I just continue to motivate them and show them there’s a bigger picture.”