On A Five-Star Flameout

The blueprint was so clear, wasn’t it?

Terrelle Pryor would come to Ohio State, learn to follow Jim Tressel’s virtues on and off the field, then leave a star with the world at his fingertips.

Terrelle Pryor (right, with Corey Brown)

Michigan had the offense that was more appropriate (so it seemed then) and the depth chart was more friendly for the player that he was at the moment. Yet he chose Ohio State for the player he wanted to be. He could have been an instant star at Michigan, but the bigger challenge of learning Tressel’s ways promised an even bigger payoff down the line, as it had for recent Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith.

An uber-talented but extremely raw prospect, Pryor was probably better off sitting a year anyway, so the presence of returning senior starting quarterback Todd Boeckman made Ohio State all the more attractive.

The whole experiment started well enough with Pryor and five of his talented freshmen teammates debuting together in the first quarter of a 43-0 win over Youngstown State, but it didn’t take long for the script to need major revisions.

First came a foot injury to Beanie Wells in the second half against the Penguins, then Boeckman and the entire starting offense was shaky enough in a 26-14 defeat of Ohio in week two that Pryor did not get as many snaps as the coaching staff would have liked ahead of a showdown with USC.

Boeckman’s three turnovers against the Trojans, including a momentous interception Rey Maualuga returned for a touchdown to make it 21-3 in the second quarter, then led to the original plan to be scrapped entirely.

Pryor was the starter in week four, and though early returns were positive, one is left to wonder if he had been better off left to improve mostly behind the scenes than in the spotlight for the next two and a half years.

From the beginning, Pryor left no doubt he wanted to get better as a passer, and he seemed to want to learn to please those of us in the media, too, but no one ever seemed quite sure what type of teammate he was or what kind he wanted to be.

Tressel and quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano seemed to sense from the beginning that Pryor had a fragile psyche. That they prevented him from doing many interviews his freshman year was not surprising, but that they sent Siciliano out to act practically as a bodyguard after Pryor’s fumble opened the door to Penn State’s comeback victory in 2008 was.

More than one of his teammates, who all had conducted their interviews like normal and left the room by the time Pryor was made available, said Pryor had taken the loss hard and blamed himself for it.

Naturally, that led to his being asked if that was true, and even as Pryor responded in the affirmative, Siciliano quickly interjected to comfort the quarterback and assure him it wasn’t. I found that strange at the time, and I still can’t quite comprehend it now.

Sometimes we ink-stained wretches can be a bit too carnivorous in our pursuit of a storyline, but this one was willfully laid out there by the participants of the contest. No one went out of their way to pry loose a claim of blame. It was readily attached by the culprit himself, so why fight it?

But I suppose now looking back that’s a symbol for the whole way Pryor was handled.

I understand managing people is no one-size-fits-all exercise, but this took uniqueness to new heights, and it seems to have failed.

What are we to think now that we know while Ohio State was protecting Pryor from too many negative outside influences, he was allegedly doing quite well for himself on a different open market?

One of the biggest challenges of coaching at a place like OSU is to convince the players the virtue of patience.

It’s easy for them to look to the future and see what’s possible as well as the riches around them and wonder why they have to wait, but bosses driving luxury cars while the help toil at the tasks that really make the company run is nothing unique to college athletics. Most of the people reading this probably have felt the same envy toward their own management and wondered when they will get their share. Of course, they don’t have athletic gifts that amount to a trust fund ready to be cashed as early as the age of 21 for football players, so the comparison is far from perfect. It also makes Pryor’s alleged misdeeds all the more difficult to digest.

As for Pryor’s playing career, that’s a bit easier to break down.

He came in with the label – attached not by the media but his high school coach – of the next Vince Young, a similarly built if somewhat differently skilled quarterback who led Texas to victory at Ohio Stadium and later in the national championship game during the 2005 season.

Although he never reached the nearly impossibly high standards, Pryor had a productive career at Ohio State.

He took over as the starting quarterback as a freshman thanks in part to his willingness to play the role of Craig Krenzel even if he wasn’t ready to be the next Smith yet. Although Pryor’s mix of size and skill seemed to mesmerize Tressel, it was game management that tipped the scales in Pryor’s favor when Boeckman faltered.

The youngster proved his coach’s decision right for most of the rest of that 2008 campaign, his ill-advised freelancing against Penn State and a brain-lock interception to open the Michigan game notwithstanding.

That made the stories for the next spring easy to write. Pryor had established an easily recognizable baseline from which to build, leaving the only question how long it would take him to grow into a complete player and, inevitably, an unstoppable force.

He responded with a series of somewhat uninspiring practices before closing with a standout spring game.

Tressel sang Pryor’s praises at any and every opportunity, saying he had made remarkable progress and letting anyone who would listen know that he could be expected to do great things when autumn rolled around. By then, a 2009 season that was thought to be one for rebuilding had begun to look like it could be much more.

For the cover story of the annual Buckeye Sports Bulletin football preview, I talked to several former Ohio State quarterbacks as well as former QBs coach Joe Daniels about just what that would take. The consensus was Pryor needed to maintain his proclivity to protect the ball and complement it with a knack for when to push the limit and create big plays.

Of course he needed to improve in nearly every phase of the game, including accuracy and decision making, but all agreed that is the factor that separates the good from the great in the quarterback pantheon.

It sounded easy enough, but I don’t think he ever quite made the leap. If he did, he never pulled himself all the way up to the next level to where he could stand confidently on it. More like he managed to grab it from time to time and fight like hell to stay connected, sometimes more successfully than others.

He accomplished a lot of good things, thanks in large part to his athleticism and his talented supporting cast, but he never seemed to take hold of a team the way great quarterbacks are expected to do.

The coaching staff spent the past two seasons developing him as the tip of the spear, but Pryor usually seemed to perform better as an ancillary part of the offense, and that was incongruous with the high expectations he had come to school with, expectations the coaching staff may have felt as much pressure to meet as did the player.

Pryor had the ability but not the consistency to lead the way as the focal point of the attack. Aside from the starts of the Rose and Sugar Bowls, Pryor often looked like he was trying to do too much when the game plan was built around him. Perhaps he was more worried about proving himself than simply moving the ball and scoring points, but the moment often looked too big for him.

The coaches had to preach patience with him and convince him to let the game come to him while his teammates did their jobs, but I’m not sure that message ever quite got through. If it did, he hadn’t figure out how to utilize it on a regular basis as of the last time we saw him in an Ohio State uniform.

Even his Sugar Bowl MVP performance was fraught with ups and downs, including a potentially disastrous fumble that instead resulted in a touchdown thanks to an alert Dane Sanzenbacher (who also went to the turf in the end zone to make a difficult catch of a low throw for one of Pryor’s touchdown passes).

Perhaps that impatience and inconsistency is also what undid Pryor off the field.

He came to Ohio State with the understanding that Tressel, Daniels and Siciliano could help him get to a place where profit awaits around every corner, but Pryor couldn’t wait until then to start cashing in on his abilities and accomplishments. As a result, he lost a last chance to make himself a valuable asset to the NFL…

There might still be an NFL quarterback trapped somewhere inside Terrelle Pryor, but at this point I’m not betting it ever sees the light of day.

Though his accuracy improved by leaps and bounds from his freshman year to the Sugar Bowl in January, his consistency still left something to be desired. And an entirely different level of accuracy is needed to complete passes in the NFL as opposed to college, where the windows are wider and stay open longer.

Pryor was almost unimaginably raw when he arrived, probably owing to same human nature that makes it hard to convince a talented slasher of why he should shoot 1,000 jump shots per day when he can just get to the basket for dunks whenever he feels like it.

That much is understandable, and I’ll admit to being interested to see how much better he can get, but recently I came to the realization there was really only one reason I maintained much optimism he would change much more as a passer from his junior to his senior season.

After seeing the transformation Troy Smith underwent from 2005 to ’06, I have been hard-pressed to rule out anyone’s ability to do the same. Smith had showed in 2004 he was a dangerous two-way threat when he carved up Michigan in one of the all-time greatest games in series history, but who thought he would ever be as dangerous from the pocket as he was on the run? I certainly didn’t think it possible for him to channel Drew Brees for 12 games, but he practically did while leading the Buckeyes to an undefeated 2006 regular season and an ill-fated berth in a national championship game fraught with all kinds of other issues for discussion on another day.

Anyway, the fact Smith did that weighed on my judgement of Pryor… until I realized that Smith is the exception to the rule for a reason. Why was a I so blown away by Smith’s transformation? Because I’ve never seen anything like it. With that still being the case, I’m not sure why I should find it altogether realistic that Pryor or anyone else would follow in his footsteps.

Smith’s NFL career to this point can be informative as well. Once he harnessed his cannon, Smith threw a cleaner, more accurate ball in college than Pryor did last season, but I still heard lack of accuracy as a knock on Smith last season when he got a shot to start for the 49ers.

Yet even if he could thread a needle with his passes, Pryor’s problems would still be plentiful.

His maturity is now rightly being questioned, and his decision making, while not terrible, has never really been the same since his freshman season ended and the staff entrusted him with more decisions to make.

It could be a matter of trying to get on top of the learning curve that was as steep as I have ever seen it for any quarterback, but Pryor never seemed to process things at the pace of the game. He could diagnose a situation, but not always before it had changed. And Tressel said on more than one occasion that adjusting to surprises was not a strong suit of his quarterback. That’s certainly not a good sign in making a projection for the NFL, where defenses seem to get more exotic by the year.

At the end of the day, it seems to me Terrelle Pryor is a complicated individual whom potential could still save, but to this point the “p” word has been more of an albatross. It’s gotten him into situations he has not always handled well, and now he’s facing challenges I’m sure he never envisioned when he ended his recruitment by signing with Ohio State a little more than three years ago.

He left Ohio State worse than he found it, and I’m not sure if he is much better off himself.

So much for the blueprint.

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