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Pitt Wide Receiver Antonio Bryant
Antonio Bryant enters his junior season as the University of Pittsburgh's most highly touted football player in quite some time. Bryant, a receiver from Miami, is coming off a sophomore season during which he caught 68 passes for 1,302 yards and 11 touchdowns and earned first team All-American honors. He was named co-Big East Offensive Player of the Year and received the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best wide receiver. Bryant is also coming off an off-season that saw him punished by head coach Walt Harris and eventually suspended during most of spring practice.
Bryant has since reaffirmed his status with the team, been named to many preseason All-American teams, and enters the 2001 season as Pitt's first legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate since Craig Heyward almost 15 years ago. PSR Associate Editor Tony DeFazio caught up with Bryant after a workout at the team's South Side practice facility to discuss the football season, his turbulent off-season and his future plans.
Bryant was arrested on charges of receiving stolen property July 23. Details of the case were unavailable at press time.
PSR: Antonio, for the first time in over a decade, the Panthers face high expectations from fans, media and opponents. Do the high expectations put any pressure on the team?
Bryant: I don't think there is any more pressure on the team because others expect us to do well. We already expect to do well, and we already have those expectations, so nothing's really different. We put that pressure on ourselves by trying to go out every game and play well. The only pressure we feel comes from us - we're the ones that created those expectations.
PSR: Is there pressure on you as an individual after having such a successful season as a sophomore?
AB: I don't think there's any more pressure on me. I had a pretty successful year as a freshman, and I was able to have an even better sophomore year. So I just try to improve every year by working hard, and learning the offense better, and being a leader on the field. There's pressure that comes with being a leader on the football team, but that's the way I want it, that's the type of guy I am. But I don't think there's any more pressure on me because I had a good season last year.
PSR: Pitt's opponents are even more aware of what Antonio Bryant can do, and you'll have to go into this season without the benefit of having Latef Grim lined up across the field from you. Do you expect to deal with teams focusing their defensive schemes on stopping you, and will there be more double-teams this season?
AB: I've been double-teamed since the second game of the season last year. Latef faced a lot of double-teams, I faced a lot of double-teams, so I'm ready for that. That's just the way it's going to be, and I'm used to it from last season. I don't worry about that.
We have a lot of talent here, a lot of guys who are capable of stepping up. It's not just one man, we have a whole football team. One person doesn't make the team, there needs to be ten other guys who step up every play, every game. Just because I had a successful season doesn't mean it was all me - there's a whole team of other guys who make that happen. And it is more than talent, it's chemistry. Me and Latef had chemistry, and that's just as important as having talent.
In our offense, someone will be open, especially if there's a double-team. That's just the way it is. I'll do whatever it takes - sometimes I'm the bait, sometimes I'm the kill.
PSR: Do you think it's possible for you to have a successful season this year, and have lower numbers than you did last year?
AB: Yeah, I think I can have a good season but have lesser stats. The numbers aren't really important, winning football games, going to a bowl game, winning a bowl game - those are the important things. We got to a bowl game last year, now we want to win one this year. You can look at numbers and talk about how good an individual is, but it's better to look at the team. If the team's better, then so am I. Hopefully, you can judge me by the team, not by stats.
PSR: Do you ever think about winning the Heisman Trophy?
AB: I don't really think about it. It is a blessing and I thank God that I am in a position to have to think about it. I know there's support there for me for the Heisman. The guys who usually achieve the Heisman are the guys who have the greatest impact on their team's success. I know that if my team is going to be successful, I'll have a big part in that success, God willing. A lot of that depends on the team, and I just want to be the guy who has an impact in this team's success.
PSR: When you won the Biletnikoff Award last year, you talked about how that was an honor not only for Antonio Bryant but also for the University of Pittsburgh. Do you think of the Heisman in the same way?
AB: Exactly - look at the situation you've got right now. You've got a receiver that won the Biletnikoff, and look at the type of exposure that comes to the school because of that -- the expectations that people have, they're writing about you, coming to a bowl game - all of that is exposure for the school. All those kinds of things play a part in just getting to a bowl game. Also, the people who make the decision for me to receive the Biletnikoff - they raise the expectation and the exposure of the team just by connecting my name to that award. When I won that, the whole receiving corps at Pitt got higher notoriety.
The award is not only for the individual; it's also for the team. It helps Pitt trying to rebuild the tradition that we have here.
PSR: You mention tradition - you've always talked about the great tradition that existed at Pitt before you came to town. Pitt was 5-6 your freshman season, and 7-5 with a bowl appearance your sophomore season. Do you think you and your teammates are successfully rebuilding that tradition that you like to talk about?
AB: Well, it means a lot to see that improvement, yeah. When I came in as a freshman, we were 2-9 the season before. Man, that's about rock bottom, to be 2-9. My freshman year we were 5-6, and that's okay, you know, we won some big games and showed we could improve. Then last year going 7-5 and getting to a bowl game, that was just more improvement. And that's encouraging to see that we're getting something started.
Just being a part of that process and the fact that we're establishing a tradition, hopefully guys like myself can continue that. If we keep improving, we can look back with pride that we laid the foundation in the rebuilding of the great tradition at Pitt. And that's something that we'll have helped build, and that will always be there.
PSR: All of the quarterbacks who have started for Walt Harris at Pitt - Pete Gonzalez, Matt Lytle, John Turman, and now David Priestly - talk about how much fun it is to run Harris' offensive system. Talk about playing in that system as a receiver.
AB: As a wide receiver in that system? It's a lot of fun, too. One of the best things for a guy like me, a guy who's a veteran in that system, is that I know the system really well. That allows me to be even more successful. The best thing about it is that you know that no matter what, somebody's always going to be open.
Our offense is designed to always place someone in the holes of the opposing defense, especially when a defense is set up in some form of zone. It's the type of offense that is designed to be difficult, even for the guys running it. It' not easy to execute right away - it's a high demanding offense. So as you can tell by watching it, it's difficult to defend. We put up a lot of points the past two seasons against a great Virginia Tech defense, so that just shows that when you execute in this system, you can score points.
PSR: What's your relationship like with Walt Harris?
AB: We have a player-coach relationship where he runs the offense and I'm just AB, the guy going out and being expected to get it done. When we need a play, he knows AB's going to go out and make it happen. I'm the type of player who works hard, and he knows that. There's nothing better for me than a coach who expects me to make the big plays. I love that. I love the coach depending on me to make the play that the team needs. And I can say that to him. I'll beg for the ball if I need to - I ain't too proud to beg when it comes to making the big play in a big football game.
He depends on me to make big plays, and I like that. And I go out and make big plays.
PSR: You had quite an up and down off-season. You received a lot of individual honors, but you also were suspended from the team for a time. That lead to a lot of rumors - Bryant's going pro, Bryant's transferring to IUP, Bryant's going to sit out and then play for Miami, etc. How have you dealt with all that?
AB: It's tough. I read the Bible, I pray a lot, and I understand that good and bad things happen all the time to all people. When you're in the position I'm in, even more so. I'm the type of guy who understands that it comes with the territory. I recognize that.
When you do well, and you get to the top, people try to knock you down. So it IS lonely at the top, you know, man, it is. But you have to deal with that. Where I come from that's just the way it is. Deal with it, and move past it. So that's what I've done.
And it's going to make me a better football player, and it's already made me a better person.
PSR: You seem to have a competitive fire on the football field that often spread throughout your teammates. It also seems that your competitive fire is often misinterpreted and you've been labeled by some as a troublemaker on the field. Would you agree with that?
AB: It's misinterpreted by people who haven't seen that before, and by people who aren't on the football field or the sidelines with me. I think that fire I have spreads through the team and fires my teammates up. When I go and make a big play, you see other guys doing the same thing.
You can sit back and watch a game and see that I had an impact on the game on the field, but I try to have the same impact on the sideline, too. People might see me yelling on the sidelines or whatever, and think I'm finger-pointing. I don't point fingers, except to say that, hey, I know you can do it. I have so much confidence in my teammates, and sometimes I just need to let them know that they CAN do it; that it's not over, that we can get it done. We can win this game, and I want everyone to understand that.
Sometimes guys might think, 'Hey AB, why are you yelling at me?' - but it's not that, it's just me letting them know that they can get it done. It's a fight; it's the type of guy I am. It's all about fighting, and if you're going to be a front-line guy, you have to do that. Take credit, accept the blame, whatever, but keep fighting.
PSR: You're working with Roger Kingdom for your speed, and you're running a 4.3 40 now, is that correct?
AB: Yeah, hey, what can I say, you know? It's all about working hard.
But he's helped with my speed a lot, different techniques, different ways to practice, and a lot of little things. And he's helped a lot; it's been great. My speed's really increased. I'm a better football player from it, and from other things that I've been doing over the off-season
PSR: Are you planning on coming back for your senior year?
AB: I don't know yet. I'm just thankful that I can think about it, and thankful to God that maybe I can make a decision like that. I haven't really thought about it totally, I can do that later. I can decide at the end of the year. Now I'm ready to play football.