116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WAVERLY — Ben Bryant recalled being approached by former Wartburg football coach Rick Willis.
Willis asked if he wanted to return kicks. Bryant, a multitalented running back by trade, had done it as a Western Dubuque prep, admitting that he often opted to lead the way and block for Bobcats teammate Will Burds.
As a freshman during the COVID-interrupted season, Bryant was willing to do anything and everything asked of him.
“It just developed,” Bryant said of his role as the Knights’ returner. “I said, ‘Coach, if you need me to be back there I’ll definitely go back there and give it a try.’ One thing led to another and I got an opportunity to learn from all the veteran returners, like JoJo McNair. I trusted the process and have taken it one day at a time to become who I am now.”
Bryant leads the American Rivers Conference in all-purpose yards and punt returns, and ranks among the league leaders in touchdowns and points entering Saturday’s home football game against Loras at Walston-Hoover Stadium. The Knights (4-0) and Duhawks (2-2) are 2-0 in the A-R-C and tied with Coe atop the conference.
The honorable mention all-conference return specialist has provided a boost in part of the game often overshadowed by offensive attacks and stifling defenses.
“This year, he has evolved into a very versatile back for us, too,” second-year Knights head coach Chris Winter said. “He’s running the ball and getting rushing yards. We’re finding ways to throw him the ball out of the backfield. He’s got great hands.
“Really, his ability to be explosive in the return game is a different dynamic on kick and punt returns as well. We’re just trying to find ways for him to get touches and get in space and be explosive.”
It didn’t take long for Winter to realize what he had in Bryant. He witnessed Bryant’s good hands and big-play ability in high school. His first game for the Knights sealed the deal.
In a home game against Monmouth (Ill.) last season, Bryant earned American Rivers Conference Special Team Player of the Week honors with 119 return yards, fielding five punts and a kickoff. He earned his second weekly honor in the opener at Monmouth this season, returning six punts for 158 yards and a kick for 23 yards.
Much of the production has been done without designed returns called due to Wartburg’s penchant for pressuring punters.
“A lot of times he’s just making it happen,” Winter said. “When the punt does get off, it’s not a rigged-up return. It’s do what you can, get some space, make that first guy miss and let’s go. It’s nice to have a guy back there like that.”
Teams have tried to neutralize Bryant’s impact with rugby-style or directional kicks. He still leads the league with 513 all-purpose yards. Bryant is first with 178 punt return yards, a 22.3 average and a long of 41. His 128.3 all-purpose yards per game is second.
Many components make up good returns, making it an art form.
“The big thing to me is having confidence,” said Bryant, who returned a punt for a TD in a win over Loras last season. “Be sure you have the ball. Make sure you’re in the right spot and sit under the ball, knowing there are 11 guys coming at you full speed. You have to have confidence, be able to calm your nerves and catch a ball and then react to make a play.
“Trust is a big part for success on the field. Have 11 guys to do the right thing and right assignments every time is hard, but having trust helps you get over those mistakes, develop and keep on pushing.”
Bryant has scored at least one TD in each game this season, giving him five total — good for fourth in the conference and just one shy of the lead. He has 163 rushing yards with three scores and 122 receiving yards with two scores.
Winter said they try to move him around to get the ball to him in various ways, shifting him to the slot to give him room to use his athleticism.
“We knew that Ben was going to be another guy to add another dynamic to the backfield,” Winter said. “He’s done an awesome job taking that role on. It’s a lot for a defense to deal with when you have guys like that. It’s nice we have a group of backs that are like that style of guy. Ben has done a nice job thriving in that role.”
Bryant has been thrust into another prominent role, serving as a representative to the program’s leadership council. He has earned the respect of his teammates and he’s quick to credit them and coaches for his achievements on and off the field.
“The thing that helps me be the best athlete I can be is creating bonds with as many people as I can on the team,” Bryant said. “So far this fall, my success has come from my teammates. Playing really close with them and as a family has helped me and the other athletes on the team.”