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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pryor Still Not the Prettiest Passer, but Ohio State QB Is Having a Sturdy Preseason


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Terrelle Pryor looked bored, and because of it yours truly wasn't feeling so froggy himself on Saturday in muggy Flyover Land.

I felt like I was watching Michael Jordan try to play golf, or seeing Usain Bolt on a treadmill.

At Ohio State's final football scrimmage of the preseason, Pryor was the only starter wearing a black jersey. Which meant that if any Buckeye defender slammed into the star quarterback, he'd be thrown into the nearby Olentangy River and possibly off the team. To balance the equation, Pryor was confined to either throwing the ball or handing it off. The junior was permitted to run with the cargo, but only to avert a touch "sack."

No wonder Pryor looked like he might fall asleep between series at Ohio Stadium. Depriving him of expanded riffs with his feet is like taking a saxaphone from a jazz artist.

The success of Ohio State's offense begins with Pryor's feet, even when they don't set course for downfield. The threat they pose opens the chessboard. Ohio State's receivers, running backs and blockers are pretty good but not great. Pryor's passing, while improved, is nothing special. Nor is offensive design typically a strength at Ohio State.

What induced University of Texas coach Mack Brown to declare two years ago that a national title was a virtual certainty for Ohio State in the Pryor Era to come? Pryor's fast feet. As with the Longhorns quarterback Vince Young in the mid-2000s, it would take time, Brown said. But the feet would scare the bejeebers out of defensive coordinators.

Pryor wasn't made available for comment Saturday, which allowed Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel to convey, or perhaps invent, the quarterback's thoughts regarding the afternoon game of touch football he had just played. "I wouldn't say he loves it," Tressel said. "It's a nuisance, but he knows when the day comes and he gets to wear the normal jersey, it might be like freedom."

Buckeyes defenders were spared the embarrassment of pursuing a 6-foot-6, 235-pounder who appears not to strain when he runs, yet is as swift as defensive backs.

Buckeyes blockers were withheld the holy water that washes away their sins.

"He's so capable, it's crazy," said senior left guard Justin Boren. "We can blow a protection, and there will be a guy in the backfield, and Terrelle will make a move, and he'll be 30 yards downfield."

With NBA star LeBron James having fled Cleveland this summer, Pryor steps onto the stage now as the Buckeye State's best speed-and-power athlete. The Miami Hurricanes, populated with fast defenders, some of them weighing nearly 300 pounds, will visit Columbus on Sept. 11. It'll be an athletic exam for Pryor. The Buckeyes are comforted to know he'll be wearing scarlet and gray, not black, that Saturday night.

"Oh, he's a freak athlete," said Buckeyes senior lineman Cameron Heyward, laughing.

Heyward is Ohio State's best player, a relentless defender who is high on every NFL's team's draft list. The son of the late Craig "Iron Head" Heyward, who was a sledgehammer of a running back for the New Orleans Saints, he is dangerous as both an inside or outside rusher. He also was a pretty good basketball player in high school. He didn't feel quite so good about his basketball prowess, however, after going against Pryor in an AAU game five years ago.

"He's so capable, it's crazy. We can blow a protection, and there will be a guy in the backfield, and Terrelle will make a move, and he'll be 30 yards downfield."

Pryor isn't trying to win a decathlon for Ohio State. He's trying to become a championship quarterback. And the finding out is what makes Ohio State interesting to the sane world beyond football-crazed Ohio.

Will Pryor's arm and eyes catch up with his feet, or at least join the party?

In Pryor's freshman and sophomore years, the answer was often a skeptical one. And among Buckeyes fans, where passion can send reason into hiding, the doubting grew extreme last autumn.

Some fans demanded that Tressel move Pryor to wide receiver, although from what I saw on Saturday, Ohio State's backups are a galaxy apart from him.

When Pryor's four unsightly turnovers led to an embarrassing loss at Purdue last season, the lunatic fringe likes of which afflicts every large fan base called for Tressel's dismissal.

Purdue actually had done Ohio State a favor by depantsing both the star quarterback and an in-flux line and overall offense that, even a month earlier, had sabotaged the OSU defense's great work against USC. Pryor, recalled by one teammate as a bit of a "punk" when he got to OSU, began to mature at a faster pace. Ohio State powered up its running game, and Tressel, perhaps belatedly, found ways to better exploit defenses terrified of allowing Pryor to run past their flanks.

By the time they came to California last January, the Buckeyes were a new team. Pryor passed better than he ever had, leading the Buckeyes to a victory over favored Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Pryor was growing up, everybody said.

Great things were predicted for him this fall, and against that backdrop I watched him on Saturday.

What I saw was a quarterback who probably will never be the pretty, laser-like passer like those that Football America watches on Sundays. The connection between his feet, hips and arm doesn't resemble that of most NFL quarterbacks, or the elite college passers. On this Saturday against his fellow Buckeyes, Pryor was 12-25 for 152 yards Four of those passes were dropped. But a fifth pass also clanged off hands -- those of a reserve cornerback, Travis Howard, in the end zone. Pryor said recently that he will return to Ohio State for his senior year. Every personnel man in the NFL, I am certain, would endorse that decision.

Critics who demand NFL-like skills from college quarterbacks tend to miss the point. For all the blurring between the sports, they nonetheless are quite different. The game and schedule are less brutal in college, allowing great athletes to run the ball some as quarterbacks. Sublime passing didn't define any of the last four quarterbacks to direct national champions -- Chris Leak (Florida), Matt Flynn (LSU), Tim Tebow (Florida) and Greg McElroy (Alabama). Nor was Craig Krenzel artistic in leading Ohio State to the title in the 2002 season.

In Saturday's slog at Ohio State, the offense won the scrimmage not because it scored touchdowns -- it notched only one -- but because it turned the ball over only once in 140 plays, which equates to half a turnover in a full game. "Do that, and you're probably going to win the game, and to me, that is the only significant thing," said Tressel, whose deep aversion to turnovers has inspired the term Tressel Ball.

Tressel transformed one fleet quarterback, Troy Smith, into an efficient leader without burying his improvisational talents. Smith would win a Heisman Trophy and reach a national title game. Pryor could do the same this year.

But will Pryor accomplish his stated goal of getting Tressel over "the hump" in his quest for a second BCS national title?

I think of LeBron James and the Cavaliers. James led the Cavs to the best record in the NBA each of the past two seasons, but in the postseason, the Cavs were revealed as less than elite. Sometimes the exposure was humiliating, as with Ohio State's football team in the national title games of 2007 and 2008 pre-Pryor and opposite SEC champions from Florida and LSU. Next week, the Buckeyes will enter the season ranked second in the AP poll. Above them is yet another SEC power, Alabama. Rightly so.

The best news for Ohio State is that Pryor apparently has built on his strong performance against Oregon. While his success that day owed much to Tressel's game-planning and the threat posed by Ohio State' improved power running -- Pryor plucked low-hanging fruit with short passes that were unusually available -- the performance also showed that Pryor can win with his arm and his eyes. He played well despite a damaged knee ligament that would lead to surgery and may have robbed him of foot speed, although most Oregon defenders still looked slow by comparison. Saturday, Pryor wore a knee brace but moved briskly when he had to.

A quarterback's decisions off the field can be as critical as the reads he makes on it. And the Buckeyes well know how fine the line can be. While Smith's overall career at Ohio State was a redemptive one, one decision cost the Buckeyes dearly. His suspension for taking money from a booster hampered preparations in the summer of 2005, and may have contributed to the loss to Texas that September. Ohio State defended Young far better than any opponent would that season, but the Longhorns left Columbus unbeaten and, four months later, would win the national title via Young's destruction of USC in Pasadena. If Brown's cocksure talk of Ohio State winning a title with Pryor seems overly optimistic, and it does here, consider that OSU's great defense left a lasting impression.

Pryor's evolution as a quarterback and a person will continue briskly, the Buckeyes say. They cite what they see from the junior behind the scenes.

Tressel said Pryor "has had a great preseason."

"He wants to be better," Heyward said. "He comes in and looks at the film. And he gets in the weight room so much. He's matured a lot, grown up a lot. Playing as a freshman, you really have to go through some tough times. You have to learn about yourself. But I definitely think he's excited for this season. I see that his competitive drive is as high as it's ever been."

Said Boren: "As a freshman he struggled with the leadership role a little bit. But last year, and especially this year, he's really grabbed that. He's the leader of the offense."

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Man, that chick beside me is smokin'.

Imagine waking up and seeing this on ESPN. I look like I'm having a stroke back there. Good Lord.

Imagine waking up and seeing this on ESPN. I look like I'm having a stroke back there. Good Lord.

3:30 AM, after the Louisville game.

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