Commentary

Michigan's immediate future could hinge on Pryor

Updated: February 3, 2008, 6:12 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

The best player left on the high school football recruiting market is big enough and strong enough to play defensive end. He is fast enough and tall enough to play wide receiver and quick enough and mean enough to play outside linebacker or safety.

But is Terrelle Pryor good enough to play quarterback and be a difference maker as a college freshman?

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Darren AbateTerrelle Pryor won MVP honors in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

Coaches from Michigan, Ohio State, Oregon and Penn State think so. In fact, new Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez might be banking on Pryor running his spread offense to make the team competitive in his first season in Ann Arbor. But at least one recruiting expert believes Pryor isn't ready for that daunting challenge of leading a collegiate offense so quickly.

"I think the No. 1 thing that sticks out is he's so big and so tall and so athletic," said Tom Luginbill, a talent evaluator for Scouts Inc. "Vince Young comparisons have been made. As far as the running, the comparisons are legitimate. He can take a game over with his legs. But I think he has a long way to go as a passer. This is not a guy that has been challenged week in and week out at the high school level. When he faced pressure in the past, he just took off and ran. Those days are over. He's going from a big fish in a small pond to a guppy in a big lake."

Pryor is still considered the biggest trophy in a shrinking recruiting pool. The senior from Jeannette High School near Pittsburgh is among a few elite players who have yet to choose a school as Wednesday's national signing day for college football nears.

Even in a state known for producing legendary quarterbacks such as Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and George Blanda, few 18-year-old high school players have received as much attention.

To his credit, Pryor hasn't seemed fazed by the spotlight. He juggled football recruiting trips around his basketball team's schedule. His cell phone no longer accepts messages and he's already being hounded by autograph seekers.

The suspense might extend beyond Wednesday's signing day. Pryor might make an official visit to Oregon this week, which could delay his decision for several days.

"I think the other schools that are recruiting him don't want him to go to Oregon," Luginbill said. "There is probably not a school in the country with better facilities than Oregon, and there's probably not a better scheme for him -- except for maybe Michigan now -- that would suit him. I think the only thing hurting Oregon is its proximity [to Pryor's home]. But if they can get Pryor to go out there, those other schools might get pretty nervous."

Pryor -- the No. 1 ranked quarterback and No. 4 player overall in the ESPN 150 -- has kept the schools recruiting him in suspense for months. Penn State coach Joe Paterno and two of his assistants visited Pryor's high school last week. Oregon's Mike Bellotti made another cross-country trip last week to see him. On Saturday night, Rodriguez and seven Michigan assistants attended Pryor's high school basketball game. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and a few of his assistants also were there.

"Terrelle could run for governor," Jeanette High School coach Ray Reitz said. "He can't tell anyone no."

LSU, which beat Ohio State to win the 2007 BCS national championship last month, tried to get into the Pryor lottery. Even Georgia Tech seemed to get in race late -- after the Yellow Jackets hired former Navy coach Paul Johnson, who prefers a triple-option spread offense. Pryor told one of Johnson's assistants he wanted to visit Georgia Tech, but Reitz called the school to cancel the trip because he didn't believe his star player had sincere interest in playing for the Yellow Jackets.

It's easy to see why Pryor is the object of so much attention. He is the only player in Pennsylvania high school history to run and pass for more than 4,000 yards, finishing his career with 4,250 yards rushing and 4,249 passing. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound senior had 3,788 yards of offense in 2007, leading his team to a 16-0 record and Class AA state championship. Pryor ran for 35 touchdowns and threw for 23 as a senior, scoring a touchdown every four times he touched the football.

Rodriguez, who is involved in a bitter contract dispute with West Virginia, his former school, might have the most at stake. After Rodriguez was hired to replace retiring Lloyd Carr at Michigan, freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas. Mallett didn't believe he was a good fit for the spread offense Rodriguez used at West Virginia. Wolverines starter Chad Henne is graduating and none of the other returning Michigan quarterbacks seem equipped to run the offense.

More importantly, Pryor is the prize in Rodriguez's first head-to-head battle with Ohio State. Tressel beat Carr six times in seven meetings, the first Ohio State coach to accomplish that feat. Although the Buckeyes and Wolverines won't play until the Nov. 22 regular-season finale at Ohio Stadium, losing Pryor would be considered a loss for Rodriguez by many Michigan fans.

"Michigan fans are looking at Pryor as the only option to come in and run that offense," Luginbill said. "If that happens, you're talking about expectations going through the stratosphere, and the guys around him might not be equipped to run that offense. That's hard -- ask Jimmy Clausen."

Clausen was considered the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the country last year. Clausen, who hails from Westlake Village, Calif., chose Notre Dame over Michigan, South Carolina and Southern California. He became the eighth freshman quarterback to start for the Fighting Irish since 1950 and struggled mightily because there wasn't much talent around him. Clausen didn't throw a touchdown until his fifth game in 2007. The Fighting Irish finished 3-9, the worst season ever for one of college football's most storied programs.

Luginbill fears a similar disaster could happen if Pryor is thrown into the fire immediately. Pryor, whose parents are divorced, lives with a guardian. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch has served as an advisor during the recruiting process and even sat in on several of Pryor's meetings with college coaches.

"I'm not convinced he's one of those guys that feels like he has to come in and play immediately," Luginbill said. "I'm not sure that's the healthiest option for the young man. He needs to be able to sit down and learn how to become a passer. Does he have a big arm? Sure, he does. But as far as accuracy, reading progressions and sitting in the pocket and only running when he has to, he still has to learn all those things."

Chances are Pryor won't get to wait.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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