CORDELE, Ga. — In the months leading up to Markaviest Bryant’s arrival at Auburn, it happened repeatedly.
Strangers would approach the soon-to-be-freshman requesting he sign something. Often it was piece of paper. Other times it was the T-shirt someone was wearing.
On rare occasions it’s been an arm.
“People think I have a real good chance of being a superstar one day,” Bryant, who always smiles and obliges, told SEC Country on a visit last month. “They say, ‘You never know what might be coming or what this might be worth someday.’ ”
There’s one place, however, where the people have a good understanding of how valuable Bryant’s presence is.
It was clear when Gus Malzahn’s football staff crowded around a conference table on National Signing Day in February, and exploded into celebration after Bryant, 6-foot-4, 226 pounds, shocked many by putting an orange and blue baseball cap on his then-floppy hair.
— Auburn Football (@AuburnFootball) February 1, 2017
Bryant, overwhelmed with emotion after his morning-of decision, saw the clip later in the day. It was more than he could have hoped for.
“It was big. That made me feel like I really made the best decision for me,” Bryant said. “I mean, I really made the decision for myself and my family. I think I put myself in the best situation to be great.”
See, rarely does Bryant, or anyone around him, use the word adequate.
It’s certainly not how coaches at Alabama, Georgia, LSU or dozens of other top programs chose to describe the 4-star defensive end when they offered him scholarships. Outstanding was a better descriptor.
Shelton Felton, Bryant’s head coach at Crisp County High School hates “to say perfect,” but admits “he’s close to it.”
The chance to start and play would have been there at many of the nation’s most prestigious schools. Yet after a back-and-forth recruiting process — the prospect wanted to attend Georgia and LSU before settling on Auburn — Bryant said he found the right fit about 125 miles from his hometown.
“I feel like Auburn would have a much bigger need for me,” Bryant said. “At other schools, I would have just been another player. At Auburn, I’m the player.”
Becoming Big Cat
Felton met Bryant in the hallway shortly after taking over as the Cougars head football coach in March of 2015.
When the sophomore introduced himself as Markaviest, Felton smiled.
“I said, ‘I can’t say that,” Felton recalled. “We’re going to call you Big Cat. And it just stuck with him.’ ”
Ironically, the nickname didn’t depict the player Bryant was at the time or had always been in the past.
The signs were always there. Bryant’s mother, Marcia, will never forget the message she received on her son’s first trip to the dentist.
“His teeth were so small,” Marcia said. “The dentist said, ‘Oh my goodness this is going to be a big boy.’ ”
And sure enough, over time, Bryant became the biggest kid in his class. By the time he was 5, his mom and stepdad recognized he needed to be playing sports and went to sign him up for flag football.
When the signup sheet was full, Marcia and her husband went in another direction, urging a coach to give him a shot playing contact football. And despite Marcia’s suggestion to give other sports, like basketball, a try, Bryant’s been on the gridiron ever since.
A different determination was always there, too. Like others, he grew and improved. But when no one thought he had a future in a football helmet, Bryant kept striving.
“A lot of people used to overlook me and say I wasn’t good,” Bryant said. “I used to be the first one to get picked just because I was bigger than everybody,” Bryant said. “But coaches joked that I wasn’t that guy. I didn’t have anything to prove really at that time.”
However, in the hours before school, Bryant worked out, telling himself one day he would provide for his mom and family.
Felton had a plan he wanted to implement in his first years at Crisp County. Bryant never doubted Felton, who was a Cougar himself, but it wasn’t always easy.
“We’ve had times where it’s gotten heated. Where I’ve just gotten really mad at him,” Felton said. “And he never did anything but shake his head and say, ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir.’ ”
Yet often that brave face only stayed on until Bryant got home from practice. Then he crumbled and the tears rolled.
“There used to be days where I didn’t think I wanted to play anymore, I used to be so mad,” Bryant said. “He called me tissue and other names all the time in front of everybody. It was terrible.”
Felton never let up, either.
“I had to get on him, I can be very demanding. ” Felton said. “In those times he knew it was best for him. It wasn’t anything but wanting the best for him and he understood that. One thing with him, he took hard coaching, he took aggressiveness and he’s done a great job with it.”
Big Cat had to earn his stripes. So he followed the “crazy man” and all his orders.
“Whatever he said to do, I was like I’m just going to do it,” Bryant said. “As I started getting serious and developing in the weight room, and then onto the field and he started teaching me things as a young man, all of that came together and I got better throughout the season. He told me what I had to do to become who I am today, and ever since then I’ve just been consistent and trying to stay with it in everyday life.”
For Big Cat, though, consistent was never enough.
As a senior, he totaled 102 tackles (36.5 for a loss) while leading Crisp County to the Georgia Class 3A semifinals. The defensive player of the year was named an Under Armour All-American, too. And stopping a single opponent was minimum—Big Cat wanted to be unblockable.
More often than not, he was.
— Auburn Football (@AuburnFootball) February 1, 2017
“Once he learned and got better going into his senior year, when he understood the defense and how to play,” Felton said. “He shut down one side of the field.”
While Bryant admits he worked hard he’ll be the first to point to Felton.
“He helped me become that dog,” Bryant said of his coach. “The things I was doing before he came, I was physical, but I wasn’t as physical. As a football player you have to be tough. He kind of built that into me. … He’s taught me so much as far as just how to be aggressive, how to have that dog in you.”
Any physical, mental or emotional edge Big Cat can carry with him to campus this summer is going to be vital. Especially because Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner can’t be described as quiet or boring.
Intimidating, yes. In particular moments — say following a mistake during the suffocating heat of fall camp — the most appropriate adjective might be scary.
Still, Big Cat is prepared for how Garner may change when he’s a true freshman instead of a prized recruit. Similarly to Felton, Big Cat sees Garner as a father-figure. Besides, he started hanging on every harsh criticism a long time ago.
‘What he needed to know’
The nickname “the closer” isn’t easily awarded. But few in college football question if Garner is deserving of it.
The longtime coach swears it’s a combination of qualities which allows players to separate themselves and become stars in the Southeastern Conference. Skill is a requirement, but “tenacity” and a willingness “to stick your face in the fireplace on every single snap,” he says, goes further.
Garner explains it as “dropping his players in the grease.” And you either “stay in there and cook and become good, or jump out of the pot.”
Others have tried and struggled to deal with his methods. Even third-round draft pick Montravius Adams, Big Cat’s cousin, admittedly didn’t develop as quickly as he would have liked.
So why might Big Cat be unique? Is he that much better suited to handle Garner’s wrath and contribute in his first year?
For starters, Big Cat sought tough love before he signed his National Letter of Intent. Where other recruits yearned for praise, Big Cat sought criticism. So defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and Garner offered it.
“Nowadays, recruiting is all about telling kids all about how great they are,” Felton said. “With coach Garner, coach Steele, they broke him down and told him how bad he really is, but also how great he can be at the next level if he fixes a couple of things. The thing about coach Garner, he told him the truth from Day 1. … He told him what he needed to know, how he was going to make him a player and then said he has a chance to be at the next level.”
Felton says Big Cat’s intelligence is an added bonus to his athleticism and work ethic.
“You can teach him something and show it to him on a board, he digests stuff fast,” Felton said. “He’s not a slow learner. Once he gets it, he reads it out and once he understands it, he’s got it. That’s the thing I love about him. He learns the game.”
Conversations about how Garner and Steele planned to use Big Cat were important moments in the recruiting process, even after Auburn’s significant 2016 defensive turnaround.
The senior walked away from his official visit adoring Garner and dubbing Steele “a genius.”
“I’m not going to lie I really saw a big improvement on the defensive side of the ball,” Big Cat said. “Coach Steele is doing a wonderful job over there. I really like his scheme and he kind of broke it down and already has a plan for me. It was just me coming in as a high school senior, I may have big shoes to fill, but at the same time I get that and I can get there.”
The beating players’ bodies take in a season has been obvious to Big Cat. Besides, while he agrees there’s nothing wrong with redshirting, filling an immediate need with the departure of Carl Lawson was a draw for the top prospect.
The belief Big Cat has in himself, and the one Auburn has showed him, indicates he might not have a choice but to play as soon as possible.
“That’s something he said when he chose Auburn,” Felton said. “He could have gone anywhere in the country, but he felt like there was a need for him at Auburn. And Auburn needed him. It was a good relationship. I think he’s going in with the mindset of playing. He wants to play now. I think he’ll do everything in his power to play.”
Plans to match the nickname
Big Cat knows all about the SEC and national titles Auburn has won over the years. He believes the Tigers are winners. He hopes only to add to the tradition and history.
Coming directly from a program which Felton turned around in a few years, Big Cat hopes to help Auburn have more “glory days.” The newcomer is aware he won’t be able to do that if he doesn’t perform.
But he feels he’s ready. He knows even if he’s not, he has to be — and soon.
“If I’m not, coach isn’t going to put me out there,” Big Cat said. “But I have to play. So now I put myself in the best position to be a better young man, a better athlete on the field and in the classroom. Everyday I wake up and try to do all the small things better. You do the small things better and the big things won’t be a problem.”
So for now, Big Cat is putting daydreams of sacks, awards and College Football Playoff trophies on hold. Visions of being an NFL draft pick and running through a tunnel as a pro, well, hopefully those will occur more frequently in a few years.
For him, the important thing is waking up being where he’s supposed to be on time each day. He’ll live in the weight room and go from there.
“When I first get there I’m thinking about developing,” Big Cat said. “I’m all about what I need to do to beat the guy in front of me.”
Enjoying the moment is at the top of his to-do list, and his family’s, as well.
“Who knew?” Marcia Bryant asked. “My background, my dad was like a sharecropper. It’s something you hardly ever hear these days. We helped him with the cows, hogs. You name it, when I was a little girl we had outhouses. It’s a big, major change for the family. For him to be this big, it’s amazing.”
Big Cat could hardly believe it would soon be time to depart his small town of Cordele (pop. 11,147) and drive down back roads to get to Auburn for summer workouts.
“It’s like being a high school freshman,” Big Cat said. “Right now it still feels like a dream. I still can’t believe I’m going to Auburn to play football.”
I’m all about the academics, I’m all about getting better and making my relationship with God better. I’m going there to play football, that’s why they’ve got me there. But I’m about all that. I’m about trying to be the guy that everybody sees me as and the guy I could be labeled as. That’s who I want to be. In order for me to be that person, I have to do the little things right.”
The plan is in place. Felton expects Big Cat to get bigger and stronger before he experiences his first fall camp later this year. If he can stay humble and healthy? Big Cat’s in for an illustrious career as a Tiger.
“The sky is the limit for him. Big Cat is going to be a household name,” Felton said. “I really believe that.”