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Tight end Hunter Bryant boosts Huskies’ offense

Washington quarterback Jake Browning scrambled, buying himself some time. And then he saw him: Hunter Bryant, open over the middle. The sophomore tight end — playing in just his third game of the season— caught the short pass, turned and slipped through a hole between defenders.

And then he was off. He cut across to the sideline, racing toward the end zone before Washington State’s Jalen Thompson brought him down at the Cougars’ 22-yard line.

A play later, the Huskies pulled out the trick plays: a double pass from Jake Browning to Aaron Fuller to Bryant. Touchdown, and a 20-9 Washington lead early in the third quarter.

A cheat code, that’s what wide receiver Andre Baccellia calls Bryant. His return has given the Huskies’ offense another dimension. During the 28-15 victory over Washington State in Friday night’s Apple Cup, Hunter was the X-factor.

“He’s just a completely different weapon,” Baccellia said. “With his size and speed and just having him back and having him healthy, he’s just another weapon for our offense. He’s been awesome.”

Bryant was UW’s leading receiver against the Cougars, finishing with three receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown.

An ESPN Freshman All-American selection last year, Bryant played in nine games and was the Huskies’ third-leading receiver, catching 22 passes for 331 yards and a touchdown. He suffered a knee injury in October 2017 before he aggravated it this summer and underwent surgery in June.

Bryant played for the first time this season against Stanford and had a single reception for 9 yards. He then caught two passes for 55 yards in last week’s victory over Oregon State.

It’s been incredible, Bryant said, to be able to join the Huskies on the field again. With each game, he’s growing more confident with his body. He feels healthy, and every reception is a chance to do something he was able to do before.

“I’m starting to get better as a player overall,” he said, “so I’m excited about how I’m playing and where the team’s going.”

His teammates can see the growth, too. Baccellia watched Bryant go through rehab. He knows what it took for Bryant to get back to this point. All of that effort is paying off now.

“Just working really hard,” Baccellia said, “getting out there in practice, just putting in the extra time to get those extra catches, run routes and stuff. Just to come back and be the best player he can be, which is awesome.”

For many of the Huskies, this year’s Apple Cup was the first time they played in the snow. Bryant was no different. When asked about it, he lit up. All smiles. It was crazy, and sometimes difficult. But he loved it.

“It felt good just to be able to help my team to get this win,” he said. “This was a really big win for us just to be able to do everything we want to do with our season and stuff. I’m glad I was able to contribute and do everything I could to help us win.”

Earlier this month, head coach Chris Petersen was asked if he would limit Bryant’s time on the field since he could play in four games and still redshirt. The answer? Not necessarily. After the victory over the Cougars, Bryant said that wasn’t on his radar. The Pac-12 championship will be his fourth game this season.

“I just want to play football,” he said.

The Huskies entered the Apple Cup as healthy as they’d been all season. Bryant was a crucial missing piece. That’s a point he proved several times over on Friday night — and one he’ll likely prove again as the Huskies take aim at the Rose Bowl.

“Hunter has been able to make some big plays for us when he’s been healthy,” said Browning said. “Obviously we love having him back.”

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