Pryor has license to lead at Ohio State

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When Terrelle Pryor showed snippets of his boundless potential last season, he usually did so with his feet.

Whether it was sprinting for the game-winning touchdown at Wisconsin, wrong-footing the Michigan State Spartans in a blowout or consistently beating Texas defenders to the edge in the Fiesta Bowl, Pryor displayed the type of fearless footwork that you simply can't teach. But outside the spotlight, in Ohio State's locker room, the meeting rooms or the practice field, Pryor moved more cautiously.

He tiptoed and kept a safe distance.

"He was very conscious of, 'Hey, this was Todd Boeckman's team,'" Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said. "He never wanted to step where he didn't think he belonged. He wanted everyone to feel good about what he's doing, most especially Todd because of his fondness for Todd.

"It was difficult enough to start taking some of Todd's reps. So he was very conscious of not treading where he might not be best suited to go."

Pryor no longer has to think twice about where he sets foot. Every cubic inch of Ohio State's locker room, meeting rooms and practice fields is now his territory.

Sure, the Buckeyes have seniors and other voices of leadership. When Ohio State elects its team captains in August, Pryor, only a sophomore, likely won't be among them.

But there's little doubt that Pryor has a much greater ownership stake in this Buckeyes team. He doesn't have to be a steward for last year's sizable senior class. He admired and respected them, but they're gone now.

When the 2009 season kicks off, Pryor can be his own man, his own leader and his own quarterback.

"I want to take that responsibility and lead the team," Pryor said. "There's some seniors now that will take it, but you can tell, they kind of gave it to me. The most important thing is for a quarterback to be a leader. ...

"We have some seniors and guys, they've been here longer. It's their team, but it's also my team."

Pryor should have an easier time fulfilling his leadership duties this fall. For starters, the age gap that separated him from his teammates on offense no longer exists.

When the 19-year-old Pryor stepped into the huddle last September at USC, he faced players three and four years older than him, guys who had played in two BCS national championship games and won three Big Ten titles. Ohio State's upperclassmen threw their support behind Pryor, but they also had closer ties to Boeckman.

"You've got to grow up," Pryor said. "You're leading grown men, 23-, 24-year-olds. You're in the huddle with 10 other players and they're listening to every word you say. It's amazing."

Pryor will see a different group of faces in the huddle this fall -- his peers. The man snapping the ball is a classmate, sophomore center Mike Brewster. Pryor and Brewster made their first career starts simultaneously last fall against Troy.

Running back Dan "Boom" Herron and wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher are only a year ahead of Pryor in school. Two other true sophomores, Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts, are in the mix for the starting left tackle spot. Sophomore DeVier Posey, a projected starter at wide receiver, might be Pryor's best friend on the team.

"Oh my God, I've seen that from the first day they walked in for 7-on-7s," defensive end Thaddeus Gibson said of Pryor and Posey. "The chemistry was there right away, and in practice they show it. It's just going to get better."

Before becoming a better leader for the offense, Pryor had to first become a better quarterback. Last fall, he often got by on natural ability last fall and didn't seem settled as a pocket passer.

Though the freshman limited mistakes -- Pryor threw only four interceptions and led the Big Ten in pass efficiency (146.5) -- he completed 10 or more passes in only four of 10 starts and never had more than 16 completions. Pryor often held the ball too long, taking 21 sacks, and completed just 5 of 13 passes each of in his final two games.

"It disgusts me," Pryor said of watching himself on film from 2008. "I can't believe I didn't know that. Now I know it. I know when that strong blitz comes, I'm going weak [side] to that comeback [route] and we'll get 18 yards."

He also knows his footwork on drop backs has to be smoother. He knows he needs to drive off his back foot on throws and not twist his hips so much.

Pryor added 7-8 pounds during the offseason and checks in this spring at a sculpted 238. He threw a ton during the winter months and has continued to do so in spring ball. He even missed several practice periods on April 10 after overworking his arm.

"Before spring ball started, I went back and watched the tape of some of his drill work when he first got here and watched it from today, and it's night and day," said Buckeyes offensive quality control coach Nick Siciliano, who works heavily with the quarterbacks. "He works at it. He doesn't expect to show up and everything to fall into place."

Pryor is the Ohio State's top returning rusher after gaining 631 yards last year, and the run will continue to be part of his repertoire. But the Buckeyes hope Pryor can progress enough as a passer to truly add a second dimension to his game.

Siciliano noted how former Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith ran less as he became a more proficient passer. Smith's carries total dropped from 136 in 2005 to 72 during his Heisman Trophy season of 2006. His completion percentage, meanwhile, increased from 55.7 to 62.9 to 65.3 from 2004-06.

The hope is Pryor can follow a similar track at Ohio State.

"You know the athletic ability is always going to be there with him, so the biggest area of improvement for him is throwing the ball," senior safety Anderson Russell said. "His confidence has grown three-fold with how well he's been throwing this spring."

The way Siciliano sees it, leadership is the final step for a quarterback after he gains experience and becomes more comfortable. For Pryor, who, according to Siciliano, "had to grow up real fast," polishing his own game remains the priority.

quot;He's so focused on his own maturation as a quarterback and his own ability to get better," Tressel said, "that I don't think he's spending an inordinate amount of time releasing those inhibitions. But naturally, it's moving that way."

Pryor released a few inhibitions at his news conference Thursday, saying Ohio State had several "teams that we owe some stuff to" on the schedule this fall.

He was even more hyped Saturday during Ohio State's jersey scrimmage. Pryor reportedly pleaded with Tressel to shed his no-contact jersey, and stepped up his game once the quarterbacks went live.

But he also showed his youth after leading the offense to a late touchdown, drawing a personal foul for jawing with defensive end Cameron Heyward. The penalty pushed back an extra point try to 35 yards, and Aaron Pettrey's attempt missed, giving the defense a one-point win.

A lesson learned, no doubt, but Pryor will maintain his edge during games.

"It's one of the reasons he was so successful when he played last year as a freshman -- he was relatively fearless," Sanzenbacher said. "Most people, when you come into this situation, you're a little timid.

"He wasn't afraid to throw the ball out there. He wasn't afraid to tuck it and run."

And now, he's not afraid to lead.

"He knows he has to step up," Gibson said. "It's his time."