Washington tight end Hunter Bryant holds the football after catching a touchdown against Washington State during the Apple Cup on Nov. 23, 2018, in Pullman. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington tight end Hunter Bryant holds the football after catching a touchdown against Washington State during the Apple Cup on Nov. 23, 2018, in Pullman. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

UW’s Bryant thrilled to be ‘100 percent’

The junior tight end is sore and smiling, and that’s bad news for Pac-12 defenses.

By Mike Vorel / The Seattle Times

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

It’s a sunny day inside Husky Stadium, and the 6-foot-2, 241-pound tight end is all smiles, muscles and unkempt curls of helmet-smothered brown hair. He’s wearing a sweat-drenched purple jersey, shoulder pads and black pants.

But no huge knee brace. At least, not anymore.

“It feels incredible,” Bryant says with that toothy grin. “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 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, of course, on Oct. 28, 2017, when a left knee injury abruptly ended his coming-out campaign.

Bryant actually did practice fully last spring, though 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 did return 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 says. “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.”

Four and a half 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.

And the result?

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

“He changes (the offense) a lot,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan adds. “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 even redshirt freshman Devin Culp to form a formidable tight end group 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 be Lake Stevens alum Jacob Eason, Jake Haener or the second-coming of Warren Moon — a threat down the seam and in the red zone. And that’s not all.

“What we do in the tight end room is incredible,” Bryant says. “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.

“Cade Otton, Jacob Kizer, Devin Culp, Jack Westover — they’re all incredible athletes that can make plays downfield but also hurt the defense in the run game, too. I think that’s what makes us so special as an offense. We can do so much at any time. It’s that versatility that really helps us.”

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 says. “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. That’s what I was doing my freshman year and a little bit of my sophomore year.

“So I definitely feel more powerful and stronger and faster, just able to really impose my force.”

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

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

“I haven’t felt this good since October of my freshman year,” Bryant says. “So I think that goes a long way in my head, knowing I can come out and really plant off my left leg and jump off it and go make plays again.

“It’s just so much fun, really getting back to the game I love and being 100 percent healthy.”

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