FAYETTEVILLE — Cameron Bryan knew the question was coming.
So the backup kicker was prepared when he walked into the post-practice interview room Tuesday, three days after playing as a member of Arkansas’ kickoff coverage team during the 49-24 win against Jacksonville State.
Does he know how to tackle?
“My sophomore year, when I was doing kickoffs, I made seven tackles,” Bryan said. “And it was funny because that was an issue then. ‘Well have you had tackling experience before?’ No. I just filled in the spot I needed to fill in.
“People had to get used to it.”
It’s a philosophy Bryan is practicing again as No. 8 Arkansas (1-0) prepares to play Louisiana-Monroe (0-0) in Little Rock at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Oklahoma City native, who hasn’t been on the field the past two seasons after serving as Arkansas’ primary kickoff guy in 2009, is trying to get everyone used to the idea he’s a kickoff coverage man now with junior Zach Hocker entrenched as Arkansas’ kickoff guy.
He convinced Arkansas’ coaches, who let him line up with the nine other members of the kickoff coverage team during its opener. Bryan sprinted downfield against Jacksonville State, avoided blockers and tried to tackle return men.
“I thought for his first game under the lights, his eyes didn’t get big,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. “He went down and tried to do everything he could.”
Said linebacker Tenarius Wright: “He’s more than just a kicker.”
But how did it happen? What could a kicker like Bryan do to convince Arkansas’ coaches he deserved to be on the coverage team — without kicking — over others?
Smith said it went back to practices when Bryan was used as a scout-team player during the special team portion of practices. The speedy kicker — who was clocked with a 4.4-second 40-yard dash by the Razorbacks last spring and is considered one of the team’s fastest athletes — became a handful for Arkansas’ regulars.
“You put him on those scout teams to look at kickoff coverage, punt coverage and those things, and we can’t hold him up. We can’t get to the guy,” Smith said. “He has a way of winding through, kind of like water, finding the easiest way down there.”
But it didn’t become a gameday reality until Bryan, realizing his time was running out at Arkansas, approached Smith. He knew Hocker was going to handle kickoffs and field goals this season and, desperate for any playing time, offered to help.
It was a bold move for a kicker, but Bryan said he felt comfortable talking to Smith since he was Arkansas’ special teams coach from 2009-11. Bryan was given an opportunity to prove what he could do on the kickoff return team in preseason practices and did enough to earn work in the season opener.
“It’s a lot more stress free,” Bryan said. “The ball coming off your foot, you don’t know where it’s going to go. Wind is a factor. Fatigue is a factor.
“When you’re just running down there and relying solely on athletic ability and endurance, it’s not a whole lot to think about. Just don’t think and just run.”
It helps that Bryan — who didn’t record a tackle last Saturday — is pretty good at running. He may look the part of a kicker at 5-foot-10, 176-pounds, but has proven to be one of Arkansas’ fastest athletes throughout his career.
His 40 time ranked as the seventh fastest on the team, which raised eyebrows when it was released to the public. But Bryan also is the top-ranked player on the team in pro agility, an impressive feat considering athletes like running back Knile Davis, wide receiver Cobi Hamilton and other skill position players are loaded with speed.
None of Bryan’s teammates are surprised. They’ve watched him for years.
“He’s a tremendous athlete,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said. “When you look at him, you might not think that. But he’s on our top five board in agility and quickness every year. It’s kind of a running joke. He’s with all these receivers and specialists. He’s always got a great attitude and he works hard.
“That’s what you want out of a guy like that.”
Bryan participated in several sports growing up, including soccer, track, swimming and wrestling. He played football, too, but was limited to kicking as a senior in high school because he was the only one on the roster. Bryan said his coach wouldn’t allow him to do anything else for fear of losing the team’s lone kicker to an injury.
He walked on at Arkansas in 2008 and won kickoff duties in 2009. But Hocker, who joined the program in 2010, has gradually moved into that role. Injury troubles certainly didn’t help Bryan, who said he broke his foot in practice last season.
He finally has an opportunity to help the Razorbacks as a senior.
“We’ve told him, ‘You’re no longer a kicker. You’re a coverage guy,’” Smith said.
Bryan isn’t exactly ready to cut ties to what he called the “kicking community,” though. Instead, he sees the playing time as an opportunity to carry the torch for the rest of Arkansas specialists in his new role with the Razorbacks.
“I’m not guaranteed another play as it is,” Bryan said. “And I’m definitely not guaranteed anything after this. So I want to maximize every second I have left with this team. Once this is over my athleticism, I don’t know when it’s getting used again.
“So I just wanted to use it to the best of my ability anywhere the team wanted.”