SEATTLE (AP) — If there was any question whether tight end Hunter Bryant was back to being the kind of difference-maker Washington expected before injuries derailed most of his first two seasons, a two-play sequence against Washington State told the story.
In a span of just seconds, Bryant flashed across the middle for a 59-yard catch-and-run in a key third-down situation in the third quarter, showing off the kind of separation speed rare for a tight end. On the next play, Bryant sold the idea he was blocking before slipping free to catch a 22-yard touchdown on a double pass.
"He's as sure-handed as they come. He's just a unique, explosive athlete. That's really what he is," Washington coach Chris Petersen said. "He's not a super tall receiver. He's not a big tight end. He's got this uniqueness to him. He's just a playmaker. He's a football player."
After spending more than half the season recovering from knee surgery in June, Bryant has provided a boost for the 10th-ranked Huskies' offense heading into Friday's Pac-12 championship game against No. 17 Utah. Bryant had three catches for 108 yards and a touchdown in the Apple Cup victory, along with the most snaps he's gotten since making his season debut earlier this month.
He'll likely be a big part of Washington's plans after missing the matchup with Utah earlier this season.
"It felt good just to be able to help my team and help us get this win, this is a really big win for us to help us do the things we want to do with our season," Bryant said after the Apple Cup victory. "I'm glad I was able to contribute and do everything I could to help us win."
Bryant was one of the premier recruits to land at Washington during Petersen's tenure. He chose to stay at home despite being courted by major programs around the country because of his unique combination of tight end size and wide receiver skills. But his career has been defined by injuries so far.
Bryant suffered a significant injury to his left knee in late October 2017 in a game against UCLA. He sat out the rest of the regular season and returned for the Fiesta Bowl against Penn State but played only briefly. While he was limited at times, Bryant was cleared for offseason workouts and to participate in spring football, but he suffered a setback between the end of spring camp and early June. The setback required a more extensive surgery that at first made it sound like Bryant could end up missing all of 2018.
But Bryant was recovering at a pace that would allow him to play this season and the target ended up becoming Washington's game against Stanford. Of course, the Huskies would have loved to have the big tight end earlier — especially the previous week in a loss to California — but he was back on the field against the Cardinal in his first action in more than a calendar year.
It's been a slow progression since. One catch against the Cardinal; two catches against Oregon State; and finally three catches — and two crucial game-changing plays — against Washington State. As Washington offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan noted, Bryant is fresh at a time of the year that most players are worn down.
"He runs routes like a receiver and blocks like a tight end," Washington quarterback Jake Browning said. "Just depends on the play."
Washington does face a conundrum with Bryant. If Bryant plays in both the Pac-12 title game and a bowl game as expected, he'll play one too many games this season to be able to claim a redshirt. But Bryant may not even be at Washington all four seasons if the NFL calls.
"I just want to play football," Bryant said.
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