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Tight end Harrison Bryant will be early season test for revamped Ohio State defense

A member of the Senior Bowl watch list, the Owls’ go-to TE will test the line Buckeyes’ D-line and pass defense.

NCAA Football: Air Force at Florida Atlantic Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Week 1 of the college football season is on the horizon. While we had some CFB action last Saturday, none of those games featured the Ohio State Buckeyes. This Saturday, OSU opens up their 2019 campaign against the Florida Atlantic Owls inside Ohio Stadium.

The Owls may be a Conference USA squad, but they have a few tricks up their sleeve. Former Tennessee Volunteers/USC Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin leads the program from the sidelines, and on the field, tight end Harrison Bryant is one of the senior leaders for an Owl team looking to rebound from a 5-7 season a year ago.

In 2018, Bryant was a First Team All-C-USA selection and a 2018 C-USA Academic Team member. His on-field production that season included 45 catches for 662 yards and four touchdowns. That TD total looks low, but when you consider that FAU only had 14 passing scores total, Bryant’s final tally isn’t too bad. In fact, his four touchdowns only trailed Jovon Durante’s five for the team lead. Heading into 2019, Bryant is a preseason C-USA pick, and has potential to be one of the more visible senior TEs out of the gate if he can have a big game against the Buckeyes.

Having a big game, though, against a juggernaut like OSU will be easier said than done. A season ago, FAU had games against Oklahoma and UCF (both on the road) and, buddy, it didn’t go well. Against the Sooners, the Owl offense was held to 14 points while the defense surrendered 63. Bryant was contained to two catches for 25 yards, even though the offense had 324 total yards. Against the Knights, Florida Atlantic’s offense had a better day than what they did against OU, compiling 447 total yards. However, Bryant didn’t have a huge receiving role in that game; he picked up just one reception for a whopping six yards.

There were peaks and valleys in Bryant’s 2018 campaign. In the big games (i.e., versus Power 5 teams) he struggled. But in conference play, he had some solid contests. Against Marshall, the TE hauled in six receptions for 59 yards and a score. In the penultimate game of the season versus North Texas, he hit a season-high 138 yards on six catches — scoring a TD, too. The valleys came against the likes of Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech. In both of those contests, he was held to under 20 yards receiving. Of those four games mentioned in this paragraph, FAU was on the winning side of just one. While Bryant is just one piece of the puzzle, year two of the Lane Train ran out of coal — and missed the bowl season entirely. It’s hard to make it to the postseason when Marshall beats you 31-7, and Louisiana Tech pulls off a 21-13 win at your own house.

But that was last year. A new year brings new expectations — and a more experienced team. Playing against the Sooners and Knights gives FAU big-time reps against quality opponents. OU was a College Football Playoff team, and UCF was a New Year’s Six team. Ohio State is predicted to be in the hunt for the playoff, so the levels of non-conference competition over the last two seasons are similar for Kiffin and company.

With Ryan Day as the new head coach in charge of OSU, there may be some growing pains in the early going, especially in the first quarter/half this Saturday. The Buckeyes are still experimenting with how the defensive line will look, as well as slotting the linebacker pecking order. If Bryant can block for his running backs, and make the occasional catch against the LBs and defensive backs, the Owls may make things interesting for a bit.

Am I expecting a breakout performance from the Gray, Ga., native? No. Do I expect him to keep the FAU offense afloat in the early stages of the game? Yes.

Keeping the morale and focus high will be key if the Owls want to be anywhere close to the Buckeyes by halftime. If the offense can limit mental errors (e.g. holding, false starts, missed blocks) then they have a chance to hang with Ohio State for the first 30 minutes. After that, adjustments will be made — and the better team will pull away.

FAU is going to get a few chunk plays to connect, and should be hovering around a 300-yard offensive day in Ohio Stadium. Bryant’s going to chip-in and get a handful of catches, but not enough to where we’ll be talking about it after the game. I’m predicting about four catches for 35 yards, and maybe a touchdown if Kiffin dials up a short pass in the red zone.

Bryant will be an early blocking test for the Buckeye D-Line, and that’s a good thing. With Cincinnati, and road contests with Indiana and Nebraska on the schedule in September, getting quality reps this early in the campaign will help keep the Buckeyes on the path to a Big Ten and CFP berth.