Through four games, junior tight end Hunter Bryant is leading the No. 17 Washington football team with 285 receiving yards on a second-best 19 receptions. He’s quickly becoming Jacob Eason’s go-to option to get good chunks of yardage, and he’s done so on just a handful of plays.
With his combination of size, speed, and hands, Bryant is well-suited to going over the middle, and that’s just what the Huskies have him doing. Of those 19 catches, 13 have been on routes where he breaks inside toward the middle of the field. Those include a couple post routes, two mesh concepts where he overlaps with another receiver going the other way and stops on a curl, and Washington’s favorite play to call for Bryant:
This is the third play of Washington’s first drive last week against BYU. The Huskies line up for third-and-7 with five men wide with Bryant in slot to right side. That’s tailback Sean McGrew to the very top of the screen, and instead of putting a defensive back on him, the Cougars move one of their linebackers from the middle of the field to mark him.
At the snap, everyone except Bryant runs either a go route or a post, pushing the defense — which is already weaker in the middle because of the shift to cover McGrew — back. Once Bryant gets past Isaiah Kaufusi (No. 53) without any contact whatsoever, he’s got a lot of green grass in front of him, and it’s an easy throw for Jacob Eason to make to lead to a huge catch-and-run conversion.
In the first three weeks of the season, Bryant caught six passes on that sort of route. In fact, the Huskies had run that exact play — same formation, same routes — in the fourth quarter against Hawai’i, where it went for 17 yards.
So when the Dawgs went to the same exact look on their very next third down, BYU was ready for it.
Once again, it’s Bryant in the slot on the right side of a spread formation, and pretty much everyone on the field knows the play is going to him. Eason glances quickly downfield before settling his eyes on Bryant going over the middle. This time, though, Bryant is covered, and Eason has to escape the pocket before finding a wide-open Richard Newton in the corner of the end zone.
Looking at the replay shows just how much Bryant affected the defense on the play:
Bryant works to the middle of the field easily, but linebacker Matthew Criddle (No. 17) steps up to meet him. That’s what keeps Eason from throwing the ball to Bryant then and there, and that hesitation lets the BYU pass rush start to break the pocket down. But at the same time, cornerback Dayan Ghanwoloku (No. 5) also reads the play. He starts out on Newton, but knowing that stopping Bryant is priority No. 1 on the play, begins to break a few steps in and over. By that time, it’s too late, and he can’t recover in time to get back to Newton in the end zone.
Bryant has been one of the biggest X-factors for the UW offense ever since he stepped foot on campus as a true freshman in 2017. Now that he’s experienced and healthy, the Huskies are relying on him whenever they need a big play, and defenses are starting to have to gameplan around him. If Eason can hit just enough deep balls to keep the defense honest and back, Bryant can absolutely feast on the middle of the field.
Reach Managing Editor Josh Kirshenbaum at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @J_Kirshenbaum
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