Stallions' Bryant is growing up on the job Rookie linebacker doesn't play like one

October 01, 1995|By GARY LAMBRECHT | GARY LAMBRECHT,SUN STAFF

For the record, Baltimore Stallions linebacker Jason Bryant is a rookie, although he has yet to play like one.

His coaches talk about the way Bryant stood out in training camp, intercepting passes on a daily basis, hustling on every play, ending up near the ball almost without fail. They talk about a player with uncommonly good instincts.

His veteran teammates still kid Bryant about his rookie status, although each time he plays a fine game -- and Bryant does it frequently -- they marvel at his youthful talent and his rising value on a defense that does not lack experienced playmakers.

"[Bryant] didn't look like a rookie out there," said Baltimore linebacker coach Daryl Edralin, recalling training camp. "He acted like he belonged, the way he carried himself. He was never intimidated by the veterans. And he kept getting his hands on the ball."

Three months into the season, Bryant continues to get noticed. Today against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, he makes his second straight start in place of Matt Goodwin, the Canadian Football League's reigning Rookie of the Year, who is nursing a hamstring injury.

The Stallions have won in the face of injuries all season, and Bryant is another example of how they have done it. In last week's 42-32 victory over Shreveport, all Bryant did was run from sideline to sideline while recording a game-high 12 tackles.

"The athletic ability is there, but it's the mental part I'm still trying to grasp. That's the hardest thing," said Bryant, who also functions as the defensive signal-caller.

"The coaches don't talk about the tackles in the meetings. They talk about mistakes. I don't want them to have any doubts about me," Bryant added. "I only know one speed, and that's full speed. If I'm out of position, I'm still going to get to the play."

When Bryant, 24, came to training camp, he was a player out of position. He had starred as a free safety at Morehouse College, where he set a school record with 25 interceptions. In four seasons as a starter, Bryant never had fewer than 61 tackles or five interceptions.

Not bad for a guy who played running back almost exclusively at Steelton-Highspire High School in Harrisburg, Pa. Still, despite Bryant's quickness and ideal size -- 6 feet 2, 210 pounds -- he barely got a look last year before getting cut by Philadelphia Eagles in mini-camp, then by the Arizona Cardinals in training camp.

"I was so bitter last year," Bryant said. "I was just hoping to get a legitimate shot."

Then, the Stallions came calling, reviving Bryant's dream of playing professional football. He signed in February, started impressing in camp, made the team as a backup linebacker and special teams player, and has kept turning heads ever since.

"The thing we noticed about Jason immediately was he had a great nose for the ball," Baltimore coach Don Matthews said.

"He had great instincts, and that's something not everybody is born with. He lacks experience, but he makes up for it with his instincts."

Only injuries have slowed Bryant, who ranks ninth on the team in defensive tackles (23) and second in special teams tackles (11). In the season's second game, he broke his hand, causing him to miss a game. Then, two weeks later, he sprained both ankles and sat out two more games.

Then, when Goodwin went down with a shoulder injury six weeks ago, Bryant got his first pro start in Memphis. No rookie jitters there. Bryant had seven tackles and intercepted a pass in a 16-13 victory that started Baltimore's six-game winning streak.

"It felt like I'd been starting all year," Bryant said.

"I knew he [Bryant] could play from camp, but when Matt went down, I had some concerns about how well he would fill Matt's role," said veteran linebacker O. J. Brigance. "He's really evolved. He's gotten more and more confident. That's a big part of it. He's not really a rookie when he's standing in front of the huddle."

And if the Stallions lose Goodwin to free agency after the season, Bryant figures to step in as a capable replacement on a more permanent basis.

"Once you get your opportunity, you have to step in and make plays, and he's done that," Matthews said. "He's a legitimate player."

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