Can the relationship between Ohio State, Terrelle Pryor be salvaged?
It's been a hard week for Terrelle Pryor after Ohio State's loss to Purdue
The coupling of Pryor and Tressel feels more forced with each passing week
Pryor's maturity appears to be part of the issue; Tressel is under fire
The marriage between Ohio State and Terrelle Pryor began with such promise. The nation's most gifted high school quarterback joining forces with the reigning powerhouse of the Big Ten? What could possibly go wrong?
It turns out, just about everything.
It's been a rough week for the Buckeyes' presumed savior. Ohio State fans are apoplectic following the sophomore's nightmarish four-turnover performance in a 26-18 loss at 1-5 Purdue last weekend. Many are ready to throw in the towel and declare the former all-everything recruit a bust. Some want him moved to receiver. Others are directing their venom toward Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel and his staff for failing to properly utilize and develop such an elite athlete.
Adding to the fury came two particularly damning news stories this week. In attempting to defend his embattled teammate from critics, receiver DeVier Posey let slip a highly unflattering assessment. "He's going to get better," said Posey. "He really can't do much worse."
Meanwhile, Pryor's former high school coach, Ray Reitz, vented to an ESPN reporter what many of us already believed: That Tressel's old-school offensive schemes aren't doing the dual-threat QB any favors. "They need Terrelle to run more," said Reitz. "... When I watch Terrelle play right now, I see a robot."
Adding perhaps the ultimate insult to any self-respecting Buckeye fan, Reitz said, "There is no question that Rich Rodriguez's [Michigan] offense, for example, would be more apt to suit Terrelle's skills."
Pryor is hardly the first ballyhooed quarterback recruit to come under public fire. Just ask Chris Simms. Or Chris Rix. Or Chris Leak.
However, the level of angst over Pryor is unlike any I've previously seen, particularly at such an early stage in the player's career. Posey is pleading for critics to be "patient," but patience is no longer part of the college football lexicon. Not when Ohio State fans have already watched this year's quarterback phenom, USC freshman Matt Barkley, beat their team in its own stadium. Not when Barkley went to Notre Dame last week and threw for 380 yards in just his fifth career start.
But not all quarterback situations are created equal. Barkley and USC happen to go together like Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly. The SoCal native is a classic pro-style drop-back passer at a program that churns out pro-caliber passers. His cheery disposition and confident, borderline-brash personality almost eerily mirror that of his coach, Pete Carroll. And Barkley was handed the keys to an offense already brimming with veteran linemen, running backs and receivers.
The coupling of Pryor and Tressel, on the other hand, feels more forced with each passing week.
Tressel seems intent on running an offense built more for someone like Barkley than Pryor. The zone-read apparently isn't part of his playbook. Meanwhile, part of Ohio State fans' frustration is the appearance that Pryor (who's completing just 56 percent of his passes, with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions) has regressed from his freshman season, when he actually performed fairly well (60.6 percent completions, 12 TDs, four INTs). But remember, last season Pryor had future first-rounder Beanie Wells in his backfield and two other current NFLers, Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline, as his primary receivers. Pryor is now the undisputed focal point of OSU's offense and, by most accounts, he hasn't handled the pressure particularly well.
"It doesn't look to me like he's relaxed," said Reitz. "It doesn't look like he has rhythm. It doesn't look like he's comfortable."
In any troubled relationship, each party bears part of the burden. In Pryor's case, his primary issue appears to be maturity.
There were warning signs as far back as the recruiting process, when the Jeannette, Pa., native delayed his final decision for a full six weeks after Signing Day. Recruiting followers were quick to dub Pryor a prima donna; however, those closest to him insisted he was simply overwhelmed by the hoopla.
Perhaps in hindsight the episode should have raised red flags about Pryor's ability to deal with the intense scrutiny that comes with being a star college quarterback. He certainly didn't help his cause with those bizarre comments last month regarding his adoration of Michael Vick. ("Everyone kills people, murders people, steals from you, steals from me, whatever.") Tressel has continually shielded Pryor from the media, not exactly a sign of confidence in his quarterback's ability to handle the bright lights.
Tressel, for his part, is facing his biggest public backlash since the days of Maurice Clarett. Fans, bloggers, television pundits, beat reporters -- all, like Reitz, are questioning his offensive strategy. The coach has chosen instead to place the blame primarily on Pryor's turnovers. "There's debate all the time, should we be doing what Georgia Tech's doing, should we be doing what Florida's doing ... There's no right answer to that," he said. "There a right answer to whether or not you should be turning it over, regardless of what kind of system you're using."
Tressel is an accomplished, national-championship coach who presumably knows more about offensive football than anyone writing articles about him. One would assume he has a plan in mind for how to bring along Pryor's development. The problem is, it's not working. He's unlikely to reinvent his entire offense in the middle of the season, but fans would at least like some sort of acknowledgement of the need for change. Will he simplify the passing game? Add more designed runs for Pryor? Or is he going to just keep trucking along in the same, frustrating direction.
The player Pryor was most often compared to as a recruit was Texas' Vince Young. Both are big, fast runners who arrived at college with raw passing skills. To some extent, their career paths have been similar. Both were the top-rated quarterbacks in their class. Though Young, unlike Pryor, took a redshirt year, he, like Pryor, struggled through much of his first season-and-a-half as starter. Young's low-point even came around this same time -- the sixth game of his sophomore season, against Missouri, in which the QB completed just 3-of-9 passes with two interceptions before coach Mack Brown benched him.
Over the 14 months that followed, as Young blossomed into a dominating player who eventually led his team to a national championship, countless stories talked about the week following that Missouri debacle as the turning point in Young's Texas career. According to the book Longhorn Football: An Illustrated History, "Brown and [football operations director] Cleve Bryant pulled Young aside and told him 'The guy who played against Oklahoma and Missouri is not the guy we recruited. You're not having enough fun. You're not being you.'"
The next week against Texas Tech, Young racked up 300 yards of total offense in a 51-21 rout and continued upward from there.
You'd like to think that sometime this week, if he hasn't already, Tressel will sit down and hold a similar heart-to-heart with Pryor. At the same time, it's tough to envision Dr. Sweater Vest smiling and telling his player to "go out and have fun." Nor would it be very Tressel-esque to give his quarterback the freedom to freelance the way Brown did Young in allowing "you to be you."
Can the Ohio State-Pryor marriage be saved? There's certainly plenty of time. The Buckeyes have him for at least another season-and-a-half. At 3-1 in the Big Ten standings, with first-place Iowa coming to town in mid-November, the Rose Bowl remains very much in play for Ohio State. Even if that doesn't happen, fans will at least be encouraged if Pryor starts making tangible progress, knowing both he and the entire offense will be more experienced in 2010.
But for this relationship to work, both parties will have to make changes.
Pryor, quite bluntly, needs to grow up. It may seem like a harsh thing to say about a college athlete, but Pryor is no baby. He's been in the spotlight since high school. Assuming he has eyes on the NFL, he might as well go ahead and start treating his current job like a pro. If need be, he ought to ask one of his predecessors, Troy Smith, for advice. The 2006 Heisman winner had to do a whole lot of growing up during his time in Columbus.
Tressel, meanwhile, needs to stop and consider that several hundred thousand critics can't all be wrong. The spread-option is a staple of countless college playbooks -- and it's not even all that difficult. Perhaps he already tried installing it and his players didn't catch on. If that's the case, he's got much deeper problems than just an underdeveloped quarterback.
When not accidentally throwing his teammate under the bus this week, Posey, the Buckeyes' receiver, actually made several fair points. "From his first pass, [people said] 'He's really not that good.' But I really feel that's kind of hard for a guy like that, you know what I mean? There's only one Tim Tebow in this world and I don't really know what people want from [Pryor]."
He doesn't have to be Tebow. In fact, he can't be Tebow. That would require transferring to Florida.
The question is, when will Pyror become Pyror? And is it even possible at Ohio State?
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