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Clemson's Austin Bryant aims to (finally) claim his DE spot

His time was coming, and Austin Bryant knew it. Next in line at defensive end at Clemson, Bryant had the opportunity to add his name to the growing list of standouts at the position.

Then his foot twisted the wrong way during a practice last August. Bryant would miss six games and never regained his starting job as Christian Wilkins successfully shifted from tackle to end. Bryant was fine with that, saying he was not quite the same when he returned because he lost strength in his lower body.

Bryant ended up playing over 200 snaps, including a key stretch against Alabama in the national championship game. But the time sitting out gave him a new outlook, and a renewed determination in the weight room.

With spring practice underway, Bryant said in a recent phone interview, “I’m feeling as good as I felt in a while,” as he works to regain the starting defensive end spot. If all goes according to plan, Bryant and Clelin Ferrell would start at end, and Wilkins would move back inside to line up next to Dexter Lawrence.

The lineup gives the Tigers yet another formidable front, one that returns a wealth of experience for the first time in three years.

“I feel like we have a lot of talent and we’ll be able to rotate a bunch of guys that can play very well,” Bryant said.

He took his first starring turn as a true freshman in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl, after Shaq Lawson got hurt early in the game. In the locker room afterward, reporters gathered around Bryant to get just a little bit more information about a true freshman who suddenly was in the spotlight.

Bryant was no longer a relative unknown, especially headed into the spring and fall camp as the player tabbed to replace the departed Lawson. When Bryant broke his foot, the frustration set in quickly.

“I knew how hard I worked last summer, throughout the offseason,” Bryant said. “I felt like a lot of hard work was wasted, but I had to trust God and know that he never says oops, never makes a mistake.”

Bryant learned from watching his teammates, and also got more opportunities in the postseason for the second straight year. After Ferrell got hurt against Alabama, Bryant played 39 snaps and had a pass breakup and quarterback pressure.

“Just knowing I’ve been through the heat of the battle in big games, big stages, really no stage can be too big going into this season because we’ve reached the top of the mountain,” Bryant said. “Confidence is high, being able to play on a big stage and perform, perform well and be able to help your team make plays.”

Bryant also says he feels better right now than he did at any point during last offseason.

“I definitely feel like I’m stronger and conditioned better,” Bryant said. “From where I left off, I had a lot of catching up to do, so I’ve been trying to do extra, focus on the little things and my mindset’s changed since the injury. Just being able to persevere through that helped me out a lot going forward and definitely going into this spring.”

Bryant has plenty of work he wants to get done this spring. On the top of his list is to improve in the run game. He hopes to add muscle in the weight room this summer to be sturdier as well.

As for the 2017 season, Bryant hopes to reclaim the starting job he once thought he had. And add his name to the list of prolific Clemson defensive ends.