CORDELE, Ga. — Picture a watermelon field. South Georgia. Midday.
The scorching heat never lets up. Like no-see-um’s below the gnat line in Georgia. The work one of the best players in Georgia does there is not found in the shade.
Watch that kid in a man’s body hoist and throw those watermelons. His efficiency seems mechanical: at least one every 10 seconds. Catch your breath. Six per minute. Maybe 360 an hour. For four hours.
Some weigh 80 pounds. That’s how a player earns money for school clothes. The watermelon market offered Markaviest “Big Cat” Bryant up to $100 per shift on the dock or out in the field during the toughest part of fall camp.
Those fields were the second of three daily workouts last August for the outside linebacker. He was hauling melons less than an hour after that morning practice. “Big Cat” would toss around 1,400 or so watermelons before his team practiced again that evening.
Forget those four stars and that No. 13 defensive end ranking. This is how the 6-foot-5, 228-pounder will succeed playing “big boy” football in the SEC. “Big Cat” already has the mental toughness to push past anything.
“Never late,” Crisp County head coach Shelton Felton said of Bryant. “Never missed. Never dragging. Never complained he was tired. He never used that excuse.”
Those two-a-days, plus close-to-2,000-watermelon days showed that. He’d load them off a tractor trailer on the dock. Or pull them from the field.
“Everyone on my team went home dog-tired after that first practice and took a shower,” Bryant said. “I went straight to that watermelon field and worked. My grandmother was always telling me she didn’t know how I did that.”
“Nothing in football will be tougher than pulling watermelons from the mud,” he said. “If you want to be great you have then you work,” Bryant said. “If you want more than what you have, you have to work. You just have to have it in your mind you can do anything.”
He walked home from the field on the days he didn’t have practice. That was about a mile.
“Things get tough,” Bryant said. “Grind it out. That’s how I will separate myself from everyone.”
UGA is in a good position
When Felton arrived two years ago, he saw Bryant was playing defensive tackle. That was a waste of athletic ability and length. He saw a rangy linebacker, not a lineman.
“I was teaching him how to drop,” Felton said. “We were playing our base coverage. He dropped out into the flats and we threw a slant and he flipped his hips and he teed off right on the receiver. I was like, ‘This guy is the one’ right here.”
Felton told him to trust him when he gave him the “Big Cat” nickname.
“When I came here and took the job I introduced myself to him and he said his name was Markaviest,” Felton said. “I said, ‘Nah, we’re going to call you Big Cat.’ I told him we are going to move him to outside linebacker and I guaranteed him before his senior year he’d have over 20 offers.”
Every school in the SEC and Power 5 now wants those hips. Bryant already has 27 offers. He’s rated as a weak-side defensive end, but his best spot will be at outside linebacker.
Felton said no school recruited the four-star recruit harder this spring than Alabama or Georgia. Bryant agreed with that. Those schools that have hit him up the most over the last month would be Florida and Georgia. He knows both schools are basically about the same distance (UGA is 30 miles closer) from Cordele.
“I won’t lie here at all but Florida was a team I didn’t like in the beginning but those guys are straight blowing me up now,” Bryant said. “They are coming hard.”
Clemson, his first offer, had slacked, but has now ratcheted its pursuit way back up. Bryant said he hears often from UGA commits Breon Dixon, Netori Johnson and Richard LeCounte III about joining them in Athens.
“Listening to the players I know like LeCounte they sound excited,” Bryant said. “Georgia just has this incredible drive to recruit right now. It is unbelievable. They just want want want you.”
He already calls Johnson by his “Snowcone” nickname.
“That’s a big dude but a lot of big guys don’t have a personality or like to laugh,” Bryant said. “He’s hilarious. I can sit there and think how much fun it would be to play with that guy. It really would be fun. Netori is a fool. He is a straight-up fun fool.”
Bryant said UGA wants to use him like NFL first-round draft pick Leonard Floyd. He’ll play with his hand on and off the ground and in coverage. That’s the role most schools visualize for him.
He’s also established a bond with outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer that goes farther than how much they both like to listen to rapper Kevin Gates.
“I really have built a very good relationship with that guy,” Bryant said. “That is actually the best relationship I have with any coach. I have gotten to know a lot of coaches, but he is the probably the closest coach to me.”
When “Big Cat” visited UGA, he saw the team’s big board.
“I saw that list with my own eyes,” he said. “I thought they were just kidding me, but my name was at the very top. A lot of teams tell you they want you, but I feel like Georgia really needs me.”
He also sees a bright future at UGA, regardless of whether he signs.
“Just the way they are recruiting guys they are probably going to be at the top the next couple of years,” Bryant said. “That’s my personal opinion. They are getting the right guys there and that new practice field and those new facilities. Georgia is getting it done right now. They had a decent team, but those facilities were one reason why they were losing a lot of top guys. The last couple of years top recruits saw they didn’t have the practice facilities and their locker room was just alright. They are getting a new state-of-the-art building with everything now.
“That’s getting it done and then it is also everything Kirby Smart and Georgia preach to you. It is not just about getting to the NFL. They stress getting that degree. Not everybody is going to make the NFL.”
Bryant does not expect to commit until sometime during his senior year. It could even be on National Signing Day, and he will not enroll early. He has five schools in mind. No order. No stated leader.
“Clemson, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU,” Bryant said.
Those might not be his official visits. He’s thinking about spots like Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame for those. A man who hauls watermelons knows it makes a lot of sense to take a free trip to somewhere new.
Bryant visited Alabama, Auburn and Georgia this spring. His last visit to Florida was a year ago. He missed G-Day for Alabama’s spring game.
“I should’ve gone to Georgia to see that,” Bryant said. “When I saw all those fans it was crazy. Georgia kept sending me stuff about 93,000 fans but I thought that was crazy. There wasn’t going to be that many there but when that spring game came on TV there were 93,000 people there and then some. That’s crazy. All those people wanted to see how the new team was with the new coaching staff and everything. They wanted to see how that pans out.”
The whole package
Bryant has never been to a camp, but what he can do is already well known. He basically must dip his head going in and out of the weight room. “Big Cat” can touch his knees with his hands just while standing up.
He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds. That’s the length and speed coaches scour their own fields to find. The rising senior carries a 3.0 grade-point average in his core classes and already has a 20 on his ACT.
“His best football skill is his recognition,” Felton said. “He sees stuff. Once we teach him what it is, he can see it and relate it to the other players. His football IQ is pretty high.
Crisp County players can access game film on Hudl. The online tool also tracks the number of times each player watches the film. Bryant is always among the top two.
“We do a player leadership program with the weights,” Felton said. “I won’t go into the weight room. We’ve got ‘Big Cat’ running the weight program while I’m sitting here talking to you. If somebody misses, he puts them out. If someone misses a rep, he makes them run. He gets his reps and makes sure his team gets theirs, too.
There’s also his degree pursuit.
“He wants to be an engineer,” Felton said. “I said that it was tough and he said ‘Coach, that is what I want to be in life.’ This kid wants a better life for himself.”
Bryant currently benches 275 pounds and squats another 460. His power clean, the best football lift, is right at 295 pounds.
“Picking up those watermelons was basically just like a clean,” Bryant said. “That helped me get stronger.”
It all adds up.
“He’s not scared of contact and will run plays down,” Felton said. “If you run straight right at him then you are going to get what is coming to you now. I think he is a complete football player. Some of these guys are true pass rushers and some of these guys are true run stoppers. I think my guy is both.”
Bryant had 91 tackles, 26 quarterback pressures, 21 stops for losses and 8.5 sacks as a junior. His best play was the bruising hit he put on the quarterback of the Class 6A state champions that knocked him out of the game.
“Big Cat” is also a starting center on the basketball team. He blocks shots and dunks. He even runs the 400 meters and throws the shot for the track team. His hands were measured at 10 feet, 5 inches at UGA. His reach likely extends to the 80-inch range. He wasn’t sure how big it was.
His second cousin, Montravius Adams, signed with Auburn as a five-star defensive tackle in 2013. But it took a sizeable growth spurt for him to get noticed.
“This time last year I was probably about three inches shorter,” Bryant said. “I was about six feet tall and then maybe two inches. I was about six feet at the start of my sophomore year.”
That’s five inches in two academic years. He was once called “Chunk” because of the fat rolls he carried when he was younger. Those days are long gone.
“I just climb that ladder,” Bryant said. “Every day. Make myself better. That’s what matters”
Jeff Sentell covers UGA football and UGA recruiting for AJC.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges. Unless otherwise indicated, player rankings and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.