Zo Bridges

Troy linebacker Zo Bridges works during a recent practice session.

TROY – Zo Bridges is happy. Zo Bridges is hungry. Most notably, Zo Bridges is back on the field.

One of Troy’s bandit linebackers, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound pass-rushing specialist off the edge is eager to avenge a 2018 season that was sidelined before it even began.

Late last summer, at the start of training camp, Bridges found out he was academically ineligible. The junior from Opelika was devastated – mad at the world and himself.

In this era of me-first football, Bridges’ story could have gone a couple directions. He could have quit, telling himself college wasn’t for him. He could have transferred out, leaving his team behind.

What he chose to do was go to work. He worked as hard – maybe for the first time – as a student as he did an athlete. And any time he thought about leaving – which wasn’t often – he kept replaying the scene of his teammates’ reaction after he told them he was ineligible.

“Some came one by one, some came by group, but they all came to me,” Bridges said. “They told me they were here for me and if I needed anything they had me.

“I was like, ‘Man, I didn’t know they felt that about me.’ That was a good feeling for me.”

His absence wasn’t a small loss for the Trojans. Bridges played in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2016 and started seven games and played in 11 as a sophomore. He recorded at least one tackle for loss in five of the 11 games he played in.

His teammates had another message for him, too. They told him to do what he had to do to come back.

“They said, don’t be down, keep your head up,” Bridges recalled. “Really, they told me you’ve got to do the things off the field so it can carry back on the field.

“I took that into consideration and really buckled down. I did what I had to do. After that started happening, you really could see the change in me producing on the field as I produced more efficiently in the classroom.”

It is why he insists he came back for his teammates.

“For me, I had no choice but to give back and show them that, ‘I’m with y’all, not that I’m not playing or not. I’m with y’all. I love y’all. I’m gonna do what I can to make sure y’all proceed this season without me.’”

On the football side, he was a fearsome scout team defender, giving the first team offense excellent looks in practice at some of the best pass rushers Troy would face.

That didn’t make Saturdays easier.

“As I watched them play it was kind of tough,” Bridges said. “Don’t get me wrong, I cheered my boys on. But when they were on the field sometimes I’d look at a play I could’ve made. It was like, ‘Aww, man.’ Especially if we were in a losing situation, I wish I could have been out there.”

The good thing is, the Trojans didn’t lose often. They dropped the opener to Boise State, were upset on the road at Liberty and lost chance to play for the Sun Belt championship in the regular-season finale at Appalachian State on their way to an 11-3 season.

“They did their thing,” Bridges said with a smile.

And he did his. He credited academic advisor Cody Ash for setting him up with tutors.

“I went to them, really buckled down, did my work – actually studied,” said Bridges with some deserved pride. “I took the time out to really do right off the field.”

He didn’t turn things around overnight. When it got really tough, he’d talk to then-teammate Terrance Corbett.

“I used to talk to him a lot. He always told me just stay up. It’s never over,” Bridges said. “He told me it’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish. I was like, ‘Well, you’re right.’ That really uplifted me and I did what I had to do to make sure I’d be back on the field this season.”

The irony is some of those teammates who helped him through last year’s disappointment are no longer his teammates. Corbett transferred to Murray State, but they share a bond only teammates know.

To say Bridges’ return has been popular with players and coaches would be one of the biggest understatements of the season.

“The coaches were talking about him the other day. Zo’s one of those guys with the ability to affect other people,” head coach Chip Lindsey said. “He’s well-liked by his teammates. He’s always got a smile on his face, always brings energy and enthusiasm. He loves this team. That year he was out really confirmed that for him.”

Teammate Kevin Nixon, another one of Troy’s bandits, said Bridges is a great teacher on the field.

“He’s a great guy. I love him,” Nixon said. “From my standpoint, I learned so much from him, learned a lot of technique, picking up on the game. Zo showed me these things.

“Watching him from afar, I was like, ‘Zo’s doing it that way.’ He really showed by being a leader that way.’

Another bandit, Jarvis Hayes of Slocomb, calls Bridges’ story “my inspiration.”

“He’s always got high energy, he’s always flying around, always got a smile,” Hayes said. “He keeps me going whenever I’m falling behind. He picks me up. He tells me what I need to do.”

Hayes said Bridges has had a tremendous camp, considering he didn’t play last season.

“When he came back you knew he was hungry. He was ready to go, he was ready to compete,” Hayes said. “He never gave up. That’s one thing I like about Zo, the fact that I have to compete against him in the same position. I feel that it makes me better.”

Defensive coordinator Brandon Hall raved about Bridges’ energy at the team’s media day press conference.

“He’s a lot of fun to be around. I think the guys really enjoy playing with him,” Hall said. “He’s made a lot of plays this camp. He’s shown up. I think he’s become more comfortable each and every day.”

Troy outside linebackers and bandits coach Bam Hardmon noted Bridges’ hard work on and off the field, but said his journey is not finished.

“He’s got work to do and he’s got to be consistent,” Hardmon said. “That’s why, I guess, I’m here, to guide him and develop him. He’s come a long way since he’s been here. … You have to balance everything. I want to make sure I help him with that. I want him to graduate and have success on the field.

“He loves the game. That’s what makes it good about coaching him, because he does want to do it. I’ve just got to make sure he goes about it the right way. At the end of the day there are consequences for not doing it the right way, as we know. There’s a lot of reward when you do it right.”

A couple weeks into Troy’s school year, Bridges is excited about his start. He talks like an athlete guarding against complacency. He attacks his school works, he said.

“I’ve still got to keep it locked in,” he said. “As they give out, I do. I don’t wait to the last minute to do my work. After they give it to me I try to knock it out. If I have a question, I ask. I try to keep it simple for myself.”

But he’s even more excited about the season opener this Saturday against Campbell.

“I can’t wait. I’m extremely excited and ready to play because, for me not playing last year, I just want to be able to show people – my coaches, my team, the fans – that I still can play this game,” Bridges said. “I want to show you that where I left off, I can finish it 10 times better. That’s how I’m trying to go into it.”

Follow Ken Rogers on Twitter @debamabeat.

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