Three seasons ago, he was the missing link. Fernando Bryant was the cover-cornerback the Jaguars absolutely had to have, and his performance even exceeded expectations, as the Jaguars rode the shoulders of its defense to the league's best record.
Along the way, however, Bryant suffered a foot injury that would compromise his next two seasons to the point that in just his fourth pro season, the former first-round draft choice finds himself in a comeback campaign this year.
"I feel great for the first time since I came here from college. I came here with a clean bill of health," Bryant said as training camp 2002 began.
In just his fourth pro game, in Pittsburgh, Bryant fractured a toe on his right foot. He would go on to start in every game that season, but he would develop a cyst in his foot as a result of the injury. Surgery in the winter of 2000 caused a loss of muscle tissue, and the injury was still a problem late last season, as Bryant was forced to miss the final five games.
He faced a winter of critical decision. He couldn't continue to favor the foot injury and be the cover-cornerback for which he had prided himself coming out of Alabama. Covering the game's speed receivers was his forte, but it couldn't be done on one foot.
"I slimmed down and got everything back. I went back to what I used to do (at Alabama)," he said of his offseason training program. "I did specific things. The feet, that's it; everything lower body."
He returned to Alabama for his conditioning. He focused on redeveloping light feet, rather than heavy muscles. Suddenly, he began to sense a return of feeling in his right toes.
"When it's the bone under your toe, you feel it every time you step," Bryant said of the pain that had dogged him for better than two seasons. "I couldn't run," he said.
Bryant went to coach Tom Coughlin this past spring and spoke of the training regimen and of the intent to play at a lighter weight in 2002. In mini-camp, he was 186 pounds; he began this training camp at 175.
"They feel weight prevents injuries," Bryant said of the Jaguars' philosophy of conditioning, "but I couldn't run.
"We sat down and he said, 'Are you going to stay at this weight?'" Bryant said of the question Coughlin posed to his starting cornerback. "He said, 'I don't want you under 170.' He's comfortable with it."
Bryant is facing a training camp of healthy competition, too. Kiwaukee Thomas developed into a quality cover guy late last season; the Jaguars traded this past June with Seattle for veteran corner Ike Charlton.
But the major hope is that Bryant will return to the form of his rookie season, when he was named to every All-Rookie team.
"They've shown me they have confidence that I can be the corner I always was," he said. "It's going to be an experiment all through training camp; just the pounding every day. I'm actually looking forward to the pounding.
"I know I can run. That's the good thing. I know I can run with anybody on the field," Bryant added confidently.
Following this morning's practice, Coughlin confirmed that Bryant has been an improved player in this training camp. "He's had a good camp. He and Craft have both played well in this camp," Coughlin said.
In other news from this morning, rookie offensive tackle Mike Pearson returned to practice following a week of inactivity due to a sprained ankle. "We need him to move forward," Coughlin said.