COLUMBIA, Mo. — Kelly Bryant came to Missouri with credible but not exceptional credentials as a college passer from his time at Clemson. Tagged as a dual-threat quarterback, he chose Mizzou to develop into the kind of passer who plays on Sundays.
Heading into Saturday’s showdown against a familiar foe, Bryant is a quarter of the way through his one and only season at Missouri. So far, the returns are promising. Just ask the coach on the other sideline.
“I think he’s throwing the deep ball extremely accurate,” South Carolina’s Will Muschamp said. “He’s overall completing close to 70 percent of his passes. That’s outstanding.”
When Bryant chose Mizzou last December over other Power 5 suitors, the conversation quickly shifted to the Tigers’ pending offensive evolution. Surely Bryant couldn’t operate the same system coordinator Derek Dooley had built around quarterback Drew Lock, a prototypical pocket passer who challenged defenses with his rocket for a right arm.
At least that was the conventional thinking — but not inside the Mizzou coaches’ offices.
In Bryant, Dooley landed a capable passer who’d spend the offseason refining his delivery so that he could make the same throws Lock handled last year. Yes, Bryant could become more of a running threat on scrambles and designed keepers, but Dooley insisted he wasn’t revamping the playbook.
“We’re still running the same offense we ran last year,” Dooley said in August. “Everybody thinks we’re putting in some new offense. We’re not.”
Heading into Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener against Muschamp’s Gamecocks (1-2, 0-1 SEC), Bryant’s small sample size has shown glimpses of exceeding his 2017 production, his lone season as Clemson’s starting quarterback. While Mizzou (2-1) has barely dabbled in the quarterback run game with Bryant, he’s among the SEC leaders in most passing categories, company that includes three early Heisman Trophy candidates.
Bryant is second in pass attempts, fourth in completions, third in yards per game, fifth in completion percentage, fifth in yards per attempt and sixth in passer rating.
His completion percentage (67.7), yards per attempt (8.6) and passer rating (156.8) are all ahead of his 2017 rates, as well as Lock’s final 2018 numbers in each category.
Bryant has been more efficient throwing the ball downfield than some might have expected. On passes thrown in the air 20 yards or more, according to the website SECStatcat.com, Bryant is 4 of 11 for 146 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, for a passer rating of 201.5. He’s been especially productive on intermediate routes thrown between 11 and 20 yards: 14 of 22 for 330 yards and a touchdown, for a rating of 204.6.
It’s not that Bryant didn’t throw the ball downfield at Clemson, but so far at Missouri he’s been a more polished passer. Bryant has averaged four 20-yard completions per game, up from 2.5 in 2017 at Clemson, and two 30-yard completions per game, up from just one per game in 2017.
“I think he’s worked hard at being a more consistent thrower,” Dooley said this week. “And so that has to do a lot with his mechanics. And he’s put a lot of time in it. He’s very prideful. He’s very competitive. The first three games, he’s really thrown the ball very well in the drop-back game especially.”
Bryant came to Mizzou with a reputation as a dangerous scrambler and made some dazzling plays with his feet to avoid pressure in Mizzou’s 38-7 win over West Virginia. But he’s done most of his damage from the pocket. In the SEC, only Louisiana State’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa have thrown for more yards in the pocket than Bryant’s 730, according to SECStatcat.
“It’s been something that I’ve been working on since I’ve been here,” Bryant said. “It’s been a lot of nights and mornings when I felt like I wasn’t really getting any better, but you know, just to see where I’ve come from since I first got here and the coaching I’ve taken out here, I’ve applied it in practices and it’s been really good.”
Bryant said he’s worked mostly on sharpening his lower body movements, getting his hips more involved in his throws and shoring up his stride.
“Just firing my back hip is the biggest thing,” he said.
The Tigers might not have the collection of elite receivers Bryant played with at Clemson, but he’s been an equal-opportunity distributor with the football, targeting six different receivers at least 10 times through three games.
“He’s gotten better in our offense,” wideout Jalen Knox said. “He knows how to read certain things and put the ball in certain places so we can go get it.”
If you remove five sacks from his rushing totals, Bryant has carried the ball 19 times for 53 yards, mostly on scrambles and a few designed keepers. The Tigers didn’t call any runs for Bryant last week against Southeast Missouri and only a few against West Virginia.
That could change now that SEC play has arrived, but he’s already made an impression on Saturday’s opponent. Two years ago Bryant threw for 272 yards and a couple of touchdowns in Clemson’s 34-10 victory over the Gamecocks.
“He’s a winner,” Muschamp said. “That’s the one thing that jumps out at you. He throws the ball extremely well. He throws the vertical ball well. He evades and moves to throw the ball more than run with the ball. I don’t know that facing him before at another school means an awful lot other than I’ve got tremendous respect for him.”