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Finally healthy, Hunter Bryant looks to make big impact for Huskies

UPDATED: Tue., April 16, 2019

Washington’s Hunter Bryant makes a one-handed grab of a pass from Jake Browning in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State on Jan. 1. (Dean Rutz / Seattle Times)
Washington’s Hunter Bryant makes a one-handed grab of a pass from Jake Browning in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State on Jan. 1. (Dean Rutz / Seattle Times)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Hunter Bryant is more excited to be sore than any athlete you’ll meet.

It’s a sunny Monday inside Husky Stadium, and the 6-foot-2, 241-pound tight end is all smiles.

“It feels incredible,” Bryant said. “My body’s just sore. It doesn’t hurt. It’s just a good sore, and I haven’t felt that since October of my freshman year.

“So just feeling that is really uplifting for me.”

The last time he felt this way, the Issaquah, Washington, native and Eastside Catholic alum posted 22 catches for 331 yards and a touchdown in the first nine games of his freshman season, earning ESPN Freshman All-American honors along the way. That all ended on Oct. 28, 2017, when a left knee injury abruptly ended his coming-out campaign.

Bryant practices fully last spring, although he was hampered by the knee brace and “a good amount of pain.” He ultimately had surgery in June and missed the first nine games of his sophomore season.

But when he returned in November, Bryant’s impact was evident. He caught three passes for 108 yards and a touchdown in the snowy Apple Cup win over Washington State. He posted four catches for 51 yards in the Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State. Most notably, he stuck his massive right hand above his head and palmed a pass in the fourth quarter in Pasadena, simultaneously gaining 17 yards and cementing his legacy on social media.

But if you ask Bryant, that pass-and-catch was more like business as usual.

“I just thought it was a regular catch,” Bryant said. “Going all through high school, I loved catching with one hand ever since Odell (Beckham) did his thing and that went viral. I remember going out to practice in high school and just catching everything with one hand – me and the other receivers at Eastside (Catholic).

“So when I made that play, it was just a regular play to me. Everyone was hyped on the sideline, but I was so focused on the game I didn’t even realize it until after.”

More than four months later, Bryant is still one of the few players in UW’s offense capable of making the remarkable look routine. He’s also the healthiest he’s been in years, replacing the bulky brace with a rejuvenated burst.

“I mean, gosh. He’s just a physical specimen,” Washington tight ends coach Jordan Paopao said. “Having him back is phenomenal.”

“He changes (the offense) a lot,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan added. “I think everybody knows here in Washington we feel this is Tight End U.”

Perhaps it can be, considering that Bryant will join sophomore Cade Otton, junior Jacob Kizer and maybe redshirt freshman Devin Culp to form a formidable tight end tandem this fall. The 6-5, 250-pound Otton caught 13 passes for 174 yards and three touchdowns in his freshman season, and Kizer brings 25 games of steady experience into a room that noticeably lacks a senior presence.

Together, they’ll give Washington’s starting quarterback – whether it’s Jacob Eason, Jake Haener or another candidate – a threat down the seam and in the red zone.

“What we do in the tight end room is incredible,” Bryant said. “All the stuff we have to know from the run game to the pass game to pass protection to run-blocking, we do so much as a group and we have so many talented players.”

Bryant’s goal this spring – besides being consistently, euphorically sore – is to become more versatile, too.

“I’m definitely more confident in my game,” Bryant said. “Run-blocking goes a long way, too. I feel like I could really stick with the bigger D-ends and the bigger pass-rushers and really impose my force instead of just trying to get in their way. … So I definitely feel more powerful and stronger and faster, just able to really impose my force.”

The next step is to prove he can be a pain for Pac-12 defenses for a full season this fall.

But for now, at least, Bryant is sore and smiling.

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