GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Before Taven Bryan had made any impact at Florida, he already had the best nickname on the team.
The “Wyoming Wild Man” is the moniker defensive line coach Chris Rumph gave him back in the summer of 2015.
Back then, the most identifiable thing about Bryan’s collegiate football career was the hometown listed next to his name on the roster — Casper, Wyoming.
Florida doesn’t usually draw players from Wyoming, obviously. Nor do most college football programs on the eastern half of the country, for that matter.
But if Bryan is going to keep that nickname heading into his redshirt junior season, he’s going to have to earn it.
“I’m not going to give him any nicknames. … Right now he’s just Taven,” Rumph said last week, aiming to convey that Bryan has not exactly delivered on his full potential to this point.
The 6-foot-5, 293-pound defensive tackle will readily admit that, and it’s a narrative he plans to change this year.
“Honestly, I think with how much more mature I am this year, I’ll play a lot better than I have in the past,” Bryan said. “I mean, they’ve told me I have tons of potential, but like I said, it doesn’t mean anything unless you use it. It doesn’t matter if you’re big, fast and strong if you’re just standing there.”
Bryan also readily admits that he’s been a headache at times for Rumph, who jokes that he had an afro when he started coaching Bryan and that their time together has led to his current bald or clean-shaven look.
“Uh, how many seasons have I been here? Two years. Pretty much for two years straight,” Bryan said.
Again, he aims to change all that this year. After watching Jonathan Bullard and Caleb Brantley depart from the middle of Florida’s defensive line after the last two seasons, turning themselves into highly-coveted NFL prospects, Bryan sees 2017 as his turn.
In all seriousness, which is a state of mind Bryan is looking to further embrace, he actually played very well at times last fall. He finished with 17 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss and 1 sack at a position not always glorified by numbers. Heading into Florida’s bowl game last season, Pro Football Focus had him graded as the third-best defensive lineman on the team at 77.7 (on a 1-100 scale) and had him marked down for zero missed tackles.
But he knows he hasn’t reached his peak potential yet, and it starts with that aforementioned mindset, he said.
“They’ve always been trying to get me to be more mature. I’ve been causing a lot of blood pressure rises for Coach Rumph, I know that,” he said. “But mostly what it comes down to is I started realizing the time — I don’t have much time left, you know. I’ve been here for three years and I haven’t really done much so I really need to focus on my goals.”
So how did Florida’s previous coaching staff find Bryan all the way out in Casper, Wyoming, as a raw 3-star recruit?
“I don’t really know. People just started showing up, you know. They’d ask, ‘Where is Taven at?’ And they’d come down to the weight room, and I started getting offers,” he recalled. “It started with most of the Pac-12, then the Big Ten then the SEC and I just kind of got found out.”
Was he surprised that SEC teams were visiting Wyoming looking for him?
“Not really. I’m kind of an easy-going guy, so like, if it happens it happens, if it doesn’t it doesn’t,” he said.
Bryan started out at defensive end with the Gators before moving inside to tackle. He says he’s gained 30-40 pounds since then. While listed on the roster at 293 pounds, he says he’s at about 300 now.
His strength is what stands out the most, though. If one were to mold an ideal SEC defensive tackle from scratch, it might end up looking something like Bryan.
That physical potential, first and foremost, is surely what drew the Gators to Casper, which sits in the middle of Wyoming and as far off the beaten recruiting path as can be.
“What it comes down to at places like that is … it’s like you’re going shopping, you’re going shopping for one item there. You’re not going to be able to get a bunch of players,” Bryan said. “If you go down to Texas, you can hit like 50 schools in like 20 feet and there’s probably like 70 great players. Same thing with Florida. But in Wyoming, where you’re kind of spread out, we’ve only got like a million people so …”
So the Wyoming Wild Men are few and far between.
The Gators’ interior defensive line lost two key cogs in Brantley, who projects as an early-round NFL Draft pick, and Joey Ivie, who also hopes to play at the next level.
They were a pair of wrecking balls inside, either pressuring the quarterback themselves or taking on extra blockers to free up Florida’s linebackers to make big plays. Brantley, in particular, finished with 31 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, though again, those numbers don’t come close to reflecting his impact.
Bryan moves into that spot now while fellow redshirt junior Khairi Clark replaces Ivie at the nose. Both guys played significant snaps last season, but the expectation is greater now.
“It feels pretty good. Try it out. Try on some bigger shoes,” Bryan says.
How close can he come to matching Brantley’s production, though?
“We’ve got to beat him! There’s no settling for second, right? We don’t like those participation trophies,” Bryan says.
The early reports out of spring practice have been overwhelmingly positive.
Gators coach Jim McElwain brought up Bryan specifically last week when asked which players had impressed him so far.
“He has been our most consistent player, day-to-day in all drills. Which is something he kind of lacked was consistency a little bit,” McElwain said. “He has probably taken as big a step as anybody on the team as far as consistency and performance. It doesn’t matter the drill. He did some flash things before, but he and Khairi Clark both have done a really good job inside. That’s huge for us.
“It’s something we talked heavily about in the offseason. He had kind of a luxury, so to say, because you had Bullard and Caleb (ahead of him), you know what I’m getting at. He’s counted on now. He’s got to fill those shoes, and so far … he’s doing a good job.”
Even Rumph is raving about Bryan’s approach this spring. He says it took some time to get used to the hulking defensive tackle’s personality, and perhaps vice versa.
Maybe they haven’t always been on the same page, but they are now and he likes what he sees.
“Man, he’s been pretty dominant. It’s been hard blocking him, and he’s shown up, not just (in) spots. It’s been every drill, every situation you see this guy making plays,” Rumph said. “He’s demanding a double-team, so offenses (are) going to have to gameplan for this guy if he continues to get better as he is now. …
“He’s a very smart guy and he’ll come off sometimes like he’s being cocky, but that’s just Taven. He’s just carefree. That’s just who he is. But he loves the game. It took me a while to figure him out and for him to figure me out. He’s bought in and he’s learning and he’s up in the office, doing the same thing Brantley did toward the end of the year last year.”
The praise is coming from Bryan’s teammates as well.
Center T.J. McCoy highlighted Bryan’s “mental aspect of the game,” and his ability to recognize formations and call out to the defense what the offensive line is about to do. He goes so far as to say the carefree class clown from Casper is bringing leadership to the defensive line.
Fellow offensive lineman Tyler Jordan gave a similarly strong scouting report.
“Explosive, quick, very quick twitch and he’s one of the stronger guys I’ve played,” he said. “He comes out with that mentality every day that he’s going to try to beat you on every single snap — he’s not going to take a play off.”
Rumph may not be ready to reinstitute the nickname, but just maybe, Bryan can be the Wyoming Wild Man yet.