LAWRENCE – Sitting inside Kansas’ football facility Wednesday, Cobee Bryant sported the smile that’s become so visible in recent weeks and months.
Bryant and his Jayhawks are attempting to go 4-0 this weekend with a win against Duke, something Kansas hasn’t done since 2009. The sophomore cornerback on Wednesday was only a week and a half removed from an interception he returned for a touchdown that delivered a victory in overtime against West Virginia. About a week before that he collected a blocked field goal and returned that for a score.
But don’t mistake that smile as evidence that he’s satisfied with the highlight-worthy plays he’s made already – like when he returned an interception for a touchdown last season in the win against Texas. When Bryant puts that helmet on and takes the field each day he can flip that switch as well as anyone. Bryant is driven to achieve more.
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Because time and again growing up, Bryant saw examples of the path his life could have taken had he not chosen to devote himself to become a Division I athlete. His priorities are set. And by no means are they grounded in any selfish ambition.
“He’s balling, man,” said Clinton Smith, Jr., Bryant’s head coach in high school at Hillcrest in Alabama. “… He’s hungry, man. He’s trying to get out of the situation he got in at home, man, and just trying to make a better life for him and his family. So, his head’s on straight. “
Smith thinks football saved Bryant, adding: “(Bryant) ‘s mindset is, he wants to go to school. He wants to get a degree. But he also wants to make it to that next level. And I just told him, man, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing and working. Make sure you’re doing the right things on and off the field. ‘”
In Smith’s mind, kids like Bryant in Evergreen, Alabama, and Conecuh County had a decision to make.
Smith doesn’t want to say the area was poor, but he acknowledged there wasn’t a lot for kids to do. Either become involved in sports or get in trouble. People like Smith – now a wide receivers coach at the college level at Division II-level Tuskegee – tried to push kids toward sports as an escape.
“I knew it was bad things back home, but I tried everything to stay away from it,” Bryant said. “Like, be on the field 24/7. Like, I just tried so bad to stay away from it because it’s no good being around bad things being in my small town. So I just stayed on the football field, kept my mind focused on and off the field. “
Bryant hadn’t reached high school just yet when Smith became the head coach at Hillcrest. Bryant said Smith must have recognized he had talent. Bryant would stay after practice and watch film and study coverages and wide receivers the same way he does now in college. He was capable of things Smith said you can’t teach, but accepted the coaching to develop what could be.
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It also helped, Smith said, that Bryant had a great family and support system. Smith described Bryant’s mother as an angel and his dad as a good guy who’s on a better path now after going through some troubling times. Smith is a father figure for Bryant, but Bryant’s dad will always be Bryant’s dad, and Smith thinks the father and son motivate each other.
“(Bryant) ‘s just trying to make a better living for them,” Smith said. “I think that’s his drive, that’s his motivation – which a lot of kids these days, especially for the kids that don’t have dad in the house, they kind of try to push forward and make sure their mom and stuff is OK. But the good thing about (Bryant) is, his mom and dad (are) in the house. And I think that’s kind of what molded him to be the kid that he is now, and like I said with a little bit of help of athletics kind of molded him a little bit. “
Bryant said his father was the one to initially teach him the game of football. Bryant can remember being outside in the cold and the rain as a kid, catching footballs from him.
A turning point
Smith and Bryant said that early on in Bryant’s high school career there were people who didn’t think he’d be able to realize his potential.
It wasn’t because Bryant didn’t have talent or was doing anything seriously wrong off the field. But up through the first couple years of high school, Smith said there would be issues that kept popping up with Bryant. Smith said he had to stay on Bryant constantly because of it, to the point he was actually getting tired of doing it.
Then Bryant, who explained from his perspective people thought he joked around too much, started to receive interest from colleges. Bryant can remember the first time a college coach came to talk to him at school. It changed everything.
“All it took was one college coach to get interested in him and his whole mindset changed,” Smith said. “I couldn’t believe it, man. And that’s when I was like, ‘OK, athletics can change a kid’s mindset.’ It really can, and he made me believe that. “
Bryant’s recruitment as a 247Sports Composite three-star prospect saw him land at Kansas. The prospect of flying scared him at first, but he can sleep on planes now and is much more used to it all. From the beginning, Kansas felt like home.
A focused mentality
That Bryant has been making big plays in college at Kansas hasn’t come as much of a surprise to someone like Smith, who watched him do the same across four years at the high school level.
Bryant once had a game at Hillcrest in which he had four touchdowns – one on special teams, one on offense and two on defense.
“It’s going to be a long time before anybody else comes through there like (Bryant),” said Smith, who won a state title in 2017 with Bryant. “It’s almost impossible, man, just the plays that he made.”
But Bryant, who attributes his success to treating each practice rep like a game rep, thinks he really started to blossom into the talent he has become after he arrived in college at Kansas. He pointed to how much Jayhawks head coach Lance Leipold focuses on the little things, like body weight, punctuality and extra film study. Everything adds up.
Leipold, defensive coordinator Brian Borland and others are the ones who stay on Bryant now. Borland sees Bryant as someone who’s always been a big-play guy, just someone who needs to develop the consistency to become special. Leipold, according to Bryant, has become another father figure and the two talk every day.
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“I’m just being locked into the season, to be honest,” Bryant said when asked what his efforts to reach the professional ranks might mean for this family. “Like, everything will come on their own, together, until the end. So, I’ve just been working, just been working hard because I know everything is going to add up. And, like, God by my side. So, I know everything’s going to add on, be good. “
It’s Bryant’s family, in part, that always reminds him to be humble. And he’s excited there are about 40 people, including his parents, who are going to be in town to see him play Saturday against Duke.
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.