CEDAR FALLS — Bryce Douglas has always been hard to ignore.
At 6-foot-2, 352 pounds, he certainly grabbed the coaching staff’s attention as a freshman at the University of Northern Iowa last season. But while his name was a constant on the defensive two-deep, Douglas found playing time hard to come by.
For much of the season, Douglas understood there were more veteran players in front of him who deserved playing time. But even when one of those players was hurt prior to UNI’s playoff game at North Dakota State, the coaching staff shuffled personnel and kept Douglas on the sideline.
“That opened my eyes. Coach (Mark) Farley didn’t have trust in us,” Douglas said. “I understood what I had to do. I didn’t come here to just sit on the bench, and it was me who had to step up and do my part.”
Defensive line coach Bryce Paup told Douglas he’d like to see the sophomore from Plainfield, Ill., in the 295-pound range when fall camp started this season. Douglas took that conversation to heart.
“Being part of the two-deep last year and not getting much playing time really said something to me that I needed ... it was time to work,” Douglas said.
With strength and conditioning coach Jed Smith as a guide, Douglas began working out three times a day, twice with the team and once on his own. And instead of feasting on Jimmy John’s or McDonalds, Douglas ate a steady diet of greens, vegetables, baked chicken and turkey burgers.
When Douglas checked in for fall camp in early August, he weighed 291 pounds.
“He put in a lot of time,” Farley said. “He changed his life. I think he’d say the same thing. When he came here, he found out if he wanted to play he had to change. That first semester here he went about his business like he had and wasn’t successful.
“He decided to change and now he is finding success. I think he would tell you by coming to UNI it has changed his life in how he views himself, his confidence and his ability on the field.”
Douglas was rewarded for his diligence when he trotted onto the Jack Trice Stadium field in Ames last Saturday as a starting defensive tackle.
“The journey has been incredible,” Douglas said. “When I stepped out there as a starter, words can’t describe what I was feeling. There were 65,000 people screaming, and knowing where my parents were ... I thank God for that opportunity.
“It was grind from where I started to where I am now. I can honestly say that I couldn’t picture myself weighing 295 and playing 50 snaps without getting tired for our defense. It amazes me and I truly feel blessed seeing my hard work pay off.”
Douglas recorded just one tackle in the 25-20 victory over the Cyclones, but as a defensive tackle, holding ground and gobbling up blockers to allow linebackers to make plays is as important as tackles.
“Can you imagine taking off 55 pounds?” senior defensive end Karter Schult said. “That would feel great. He moves a lot better, has a better motor and is showing he can be an impactful player. He might not have had a lot of tackles in the game, but he was important to our interior holding ground.”
Douglas began his career at Illinois as part of the same recruiting class as current Panther quarterback Aaron Bailey in 2013. In fact, he and Bailey were roommates in Champaign, Ill., as they are now with J’Veyon Browning at UNI.
It was a foregone conclusion he was going to Illinois. Bryce is the son of Bruce Douglas, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 and 1986 for the Illini basketball team. Additionally, Douglas’ mom was an Illini cheerleader.
“They offered me during my junior season and I committed on the spot,” Douglas said. “It was like a storybook ending.”
But when he got to Illinois, the Illini also wanted him to drop some weight.
“I was young, 17, and immature about it,” Douglas said. “I didn’t understand how to lose weight other than not eating.”
Douglas fasted over weekends in advance of Monday weigh-ins, eating one meal a weekend and drinking a ton of water. Eventually, he developed migraines and Illinois had him undergo an MRI that showed a problem in his neck.
After his redshirt year in 2013, Illinois asked Douglas to sign a medical scholarship waiver, and his career with the Illini was over. He spent the 2014 season away from football.
Meanwhile, two other doctors, including one who works for the Chicago Bears, could find nothing wrong with Douglas.
“My parents and I had a long talk,” Douglas related. “Illinois is their alma mater and they didn’t want to point fingers or blame anybody. We just came to a conclusion that we needed to check out our options elsewhere and asked for my release.
“And now ... God has a plan for us and there is no place I’d rather be than playing for UNI and having a legitimate chance to play for a national championship.”
Bailey is certainly glad to have his old friend around, too.
“He keeps our house alive, exciting,” Bailey smiled. “He is a cool dude. Like a brother to me. His personality ... he’s a funny guy.”