Bryant's transformation showing in 2013

When Ole Miss linebacker Serderius Bryant thinks about the season he has had he's proud but unsatisfied.

After an opening-game injury to weakside starter Denzel Nkemdiche thrust Bryant into a starting role, the junior enters Saturday with a team-leading 61 tackles, including 41 solo stops and nine for loss in just eight games (five starts). Still, he isn't patting himself on the back just yet.

"There are still a lot of things that I have to work on, but I've still had a pretty productive season," said Bryant, who ranks eighth in the SEC with 7.8 tackles per game and is second at Ole Miss with two sacks.

Bryant has had a very up and down three years with the Rebels, but he certainly has made the most of every opportunity given to him in 2013. From backup to starter, Bryant has been one of the league's most pleasant surprises.

And to get to this position, Bryant made the conscious decision to revamp his body well before the season started. He wanted to shed weight to get his 240-pound frame under 220 and he wanted to get faster in order to make him a more effective pass rusher and cover man.

His diet was first. In a Southern town reeking of fine fried delicacies and smothered in high-calorie sauces and gravies, Bryant pushed those treats away and turned to the grill and produce section. He planned four moderately sized, healthy meals each day and cut down his red meat and mac & cheese intake.

"It's something that I have to say no to," Bryant said with a laugh.

A nutritionist has helped him each step of the way, but he took his transformation a step further when he decided to enhance his conditioning by training with Ole Miss' skill players.

Bryant spent his spring and summer running 50-yard sprints with the receivers, running backs and defensive backs, trying to finish between four and five seconds. It wasn't pretty at first, but as summer wound down he was holding his own with speed demons Senquez Golson and Dehendret Collins.

"It made me feel good that I'm a linebacker but I can run with safeties," Bryant said.

"It was great because a lot of other linebackers used to sell me out, saying, 'Ah, you can't run with them. You can't do this, you can't do that.' It makes me feel good knowing that I can run with some of them that people wish they could run with, but they really can't."

No one is selling him out anymore. Bryant is lean, faster, hovering around 220 pounds and doesn't feel like he's carrying unnecessary weight.

Bryant has looked and felt like a new man this season, but he did stumble in October against Texas A&M. Late in the fourth quarter against the Aggies, Bryant suffered concussion when his head collided with Johnny Manziel's chest on a tackle attempt.

Bryant lay motionless on the ground for several minutes before he was carted off and delivered a relieving thumbs up to the crowd.

"Next thing you know, I wake up in the hospital," Bryant said. "I was unconscious, knocked out."

Bryant said he didn't remember what happened when he awoke, but started to regain memory of the play after watching film.

He was pretty shaken after the hit and said he "didn't feel like myself at all" when he returned two weeks later against Idaho and played tentatively, managing just two tackles. He grabbed two more and a bit more confidence the next week against Arkansas, before registering three tackles, a sack and forced a fumble last week against Troy.

"It scared me a bit, but I don't try to think about it too much because I don't want to think about a time of me being hurt," Bryant said. "I want to think about a good time -- me making plays on the field."

Bryant has made his fair share of plays this year, but there was a time when he didn't think he'd come this far. His frustration with learning a new scheme with Ole Miss' new staff last year left him wanting to escape sometimes. He thought better after some counseling with teammates and now finds himself has a major fixture within this defense.

Saturday provides a new challenge for Bryant. Missouri's high-flying offense will force Bryant to cover a lot of ground inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, meaning his legs will do a lot more work.

A year ago, that would have been quite the feat. But the new and improved Bryant awaits a chance to fly around with the Tigers.

"This is one of those games where I can get out more and make a lot of plays, just because they spread the ball out and I can go sideline to sideline.

"It's going to be like having an extra safety on the field."