RALEIGH — George Bryan wasn't supposed to be this good, this fast.
He was just a redshirt freshman in 2008, when N.C. State had solid veterans returning at tight end ahead of him in Anthony Hill and Matt Kushner.
But Hill suffered a strained chest muscle in the opener. Kushner got the start in the next game and tore up his knee.
Bryan became the most prominent example of coach Tom O'Brien's theory that the devastating number of injuries the Wolfpack suffered in 2008 would provide benefits later because underclassmen were forced to play early.
No ACC tight end has more receptions than Bryan's 30. Bryan leads N.C. State in catches and has 300 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He has been one of the few bright spots for N.C. State (3-4, 0-3 ACC), which takes a three-game losing streak into Saturday's noon game at Florida State (3-4, 1-3).
In a sport where coaches say spread offenses are making tight ends an endangered species at the college level, Bryan's career is off to an unusually fast start, thanks in part to a teammate's misfortune.
Kushner's big opportunity last season came as a result of Hill's injury.
He started against William & Mary and was eager to show N.C. State's coaches what he could do as the leading man at that position.
But while Kushner was blocking on a stretch play, a defender trying to tackle a Wolfpack running back crashed into his leg instead.
"It just tore everything up," Kushner said.
The medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in one of his knees were torn. So were his medial meniscus and his lateral meniscus. His tibia was even chipped.
A doctor told Kushner that if he were his son, he would advise him to give up football. Kushner rehabilitated for football anyway, not knowing for sure if he would be able to play again.
"The hardest part of the whole injury was that I had an opportunity," Kushner said, "and it was gone that fast."
Bryan is the only tight end among the ACC's top 10 players in receptions per game.
The SEC's top 10 pass catchers also include just one tight end, Florida's Aaron Hernandez. Coaches say there's a reason productive, pass-catching tight ends are rare.
Spread offenses, which use four and even five speedy wide receivers at a time to force defenders to cover the whole field, have made tight ends less integral in many game plans.
Many coaches are trying to spread out the defenses, and a tight end brings an extra defender closer to the line of scrimmage.
"We are one of the few teams that uses a pure, pro-style tight end," said N.C. State tight ends coach Jim Bridge. "We ask our tight end to block. We ask our tight end to catch. We ask our tight end to be in the middle and rough it up and act like an enforcer. A lot of teams just use wide receivers."
Another reason some schools don't often use tight ends is that it's difficult to find good ones to recruit. Duke coach David Cutcliffe said high school players who are tall and have excellent athletic ability often would rather play defensive end than tight end.
A look at recent NFL drafts shows why. In each of the last three drafts, four defensive ends and just one tight end have been selected in the first round.
"There's more money in [playing defensive end], absolutely," Cutcliffe said. "Those guys that are those beasts, they make a whole lot more money beating that left tackle on pass rush."
Bryan took advantage of his rare opportunity last season to play tight end as a redshirt freshman in an offense that emphasizes the position.
He cherished the opportunity. Bryan grew up in Castle Hayne, near Wilmington, and his father and uncle are longtime N.C. State fans. He remembers coming to a game at age 6 or 7 and watching in a downpour from the grass beyond the end zone where the Murphy Center office complex now sits.
After attending the Wolfpack's home wins over Boston College and Florida State as a high school senior in 2006, Bryan was convinced N.C. State was the right place for him.
It didn't take long for him to get a chance to show it. In his second start, against East Carolina, Bryan led N.C. State with five receptions for 58 yards, including a tying score late in the fourth quarter.
His career took off from there, as he caught 18 passes for 201 yards as a redshirt freshman even though Hill returned from injury to the starting spot later in the season.
Asked about Kushner, Bryan is both frustrated for his teammate and proud of the job he did when he got an opportunity.
"That was horrible that it happened to Kush, because that was going to be the year that he got some good playing time," Bryan said. "I am glad that I got to play early so I could go ahead and prepare myself for the years down the road and get better."
Kushner is back as a senior in a less significant role than he envisioned before that unfortunate break against William & Mary.
He has played 81 snaps this season, working strictly as a blocker while Bryan has handled almost all the pass-catching opportunities for the tight ends.
At times, Kushner and Bryan have been in the game together.
"We've had two touchdowns so far that George scored that Matt really did an excellent job of opening George up, whether it was through a block or a great route that helped George get open," Bridge said.
Although Bryan has scored the touchdowns, Kushner at least has been on the field to contribute after his devastating injury.
That's more of an opportunity than some tight ends are getting on college teams as coaches employ spread offenses.
Kushner is thankful for that, even as he says Bryan always seems to be in the right place at the right time.
"He came through, and he showed them that he could be a good all-around tight end," Kushner said. "For me that meant that when I came back, whatever role I had to fill, I had to fill. If it was blocking, it would be blocking. It's just, whatever they need me to do."
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