April 9, 2010

Mailbag: Is Pryor ready to win Heisman?

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Speed thrills. It chills, too.

Speed is a valuable commodity at any level of football, especially in college, where it's not as evenly allotted as in the NFL.

When a player completes a 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds - as Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor reportedly did - it becomes big news and Internet fodder.

But when a highly regarded player such as Pryor doesn't quickly emerge as a star, many fans - sometimes his own - just as quickly turn ice cold toward him. Patience can be rewarded, though, and players tend to get better as they gain experience. A mixture of uncommon ability and experience can lead to brilliant touchdown runs or passes that change minds faster than Pryor can run a 40.

And as we see in this week's mailbag, some players can quickly go from criticized to sanctified with one great season.

Pryor ready?

I've heard talk about Terrelle Pryor having a shot at winning the Heisman. What do you think? I think if he plays like he did in the Rose Bowl, he can win it.
Bowling Green, Ohio

In the Rose Bowl, Pryor passed for 266 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for another 72 yards in a victory over Oregon, a top-10 opponent. Projected over a 13-game schedule, that would put Pryor at 3,458 passing yards and 26 touchdowns, with another 936 rushing yards.

Yeah, that probably would get him the Heisman.

Obviously, it's doubtful he'll play to that level week in and week out. Just as obviously, that isn't necessarily required.

Look at Alabama's Mark Ingram, last season's recipient. He had an outstanding season but managed just 30 yards against Auburn. He followed up with a strong game against Florida in the SEC championship game (while Texas' Colt McCoy struggled against Nebraska in the Big 12 title game) and that clinched the Heisman Trophy for him.

The point is Pryor doesn't have to be at his best in every game. He just needs to play at a high level most of the season and excel in the biggest games.

Perhaps more to your point, Pryor's Rose Bowl performance probably signaled that he's turned the proverbial corner and is starting to reach the vast potential that made him the nation's top-ranked recruit in 2008.

Too many fans expect instant results (and gratification) from highly ranked recruits. And if said player doesn't excel immediately, they often quickly and unfairly are labeled busts as freshmen and sophomores.

Last season, Pryor was subject to harsh criticism - especially after throwing two interceptions in a loss to Purdue. He remained inconsistent throughout the rest of the regular season but still helped the Buckeyes close with a six-game winning streak.

Few players are great immediately. It's common for players, especially quarterbacks, to be inconsistent early in their careers then develop into standouts as juniors.

Some called Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen a bust after his freshman season, and the chatter didn't let up through most of his sophomore season. But Clausen had a great performance in the Hawaii Bowl and that led to a good junior season in which he passed for 3,722 yards and 28 touchdowns with only four interceptions. He was in the Heisman Trophy discussion much of the year and now projects as a first-round draft choice.

Similarly, Vince Young struggled so much as a passer in his first two seasons at Texas that there were calls that he move to receiver. But as a junior, Young passed for 3,036 yards and 26 touchdowns and rushed for another 1,050 yards. He led the Longhorns to the national championship and was the Heisman runner-up to Reggie Bush.

Georgia's Matthew Stafford was inconsistent his first two seasons, but passed for 3459 yards and 25 touchdowns as a junior and became the first player taken in the '09 NFL draft.

Carson Palmer had a couple of so-so seasons at USC before breaking out as a senior and passing for almost 4,000 yards. He won the Heisman and was the first player taken in the NFL draft.

Those examples don't guarantee that Pryor will have a tremendous junior season and contend for the Heisman. But they do show that he might.

Wisconsin's season?

There is some talk about Wisconsin contending for the Big Ten title this season. I look at our returning starters and some of the young talent that's going to replace guys such as O'Brien Schofield and Jaevery McFadden, and can't help but think that we should possibly be the favorite. Am I just another biased Badger or am I right?

You are indeed biased. Ohio State is the favorite to win the Big Ten. But you also are right in pointing out that the Badgers are loaded and will be a strong contender to unseat the Buckeyes.

The Badgers won 10 games in '09, including an impressive bowl victory over Miami, and 14 starters (eight offensive, six defensive) return for this season. That includes running back John Clay, a likely Heisman contender, and four offensive linemen. Defense will be a question, though. Replacing Schofield and McFadden won't be easy.

Of course, every team has some holes to fill and most have more than Wisconsin. The Badgers also play host to Ohio State, which is a plus. But the next week, the Badgers must go to Iowa City, so that evens out some.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle the Badgers must overcome is their own tendencies. Four times in the past decade, Wisconsin opened the season in the top 25 but finished unranked. That last happened just two years ago, when the Badgers started 13th but barely eked out a 7-6 finish by beating Fresno State by a field goal and Cal Poly by one point.

This season could be much different for one big reason, though. That '08 team appeared to be loaded everywhere except quarterback, and that proved to be a big problem.

That shouldn't be an issue this season. Among the returning starters is Scott Tolzien, who completed more than 64 percent of his passes for 2,705 yards in his first season as a starter. He should be even better with a year's experience.

Therefore, you and other Badgers fans have good reason to be optimistic.

But I'm still taking the Buckeyes.

Oklahoma's time?

How do you think Oklahoma will do in 2010? The Sooners have a quarterback with experience, good receivers and good defensive ends. After all the bad luck with injuries in 2009, the Sooners should have some good luck this season.
Grand Prairie, Texas

After last season's rash of injuries that depleted the offensive line and claimed Heisman-winning quarterback Sam Bradford and tight end Jermaine Gresham, the Sooners definitely are due some good fortune.

They will get it this season.

Look for the Sooners of 2010 to be like the Sooners of most years - explosive offensively, solid defensively and contending with archrival Texas for supremacy in the Big 12 South.

Quarterback Landry Jones, who was pressed into duty by Bradford's shoulder injury, was typically inconsistent as a redshirt freshman and threw too many interceptions (14). But he also passed for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns. He'll be improved with a year under his belt. Running back DeMarco Murray and wide receiver Ryan Broyles are big-play threats capable of scoring from anywhere on the field.

But the offensive line remains an area of uncertainty for the Sooners. Yes, OU returns a bunch of starters up front, but their overall play was mediocre last season. The Sooners also lost their best lineman when Trent Williams completed his eligibility.

The defense will be excellent at end, with Jeremy Beal an All-America candidate. The safeties are solid, too. But losing Gerald McCoy leaves a gaping hole at tackle, and both starting cornerbacks have to be replaced.

OU doesn't have to reach for recruits, so able players will take over those positions. But will they be able to bring the Sooners a championship? That's a tough call. Texas also has some significant holes to fill, but the Longhorns don't reach for recruits, either.

So, 2010 projects much like almost every season. I'd anticipate the Big 12 South will be won by either Oklahoma or Texas.

But regardless of what happens when the Sooners and Longhorns clash on Oct. 2, I'd bet OU has a typical OU season and posts about 10 wins, finishes in the top 10 and at least is a strong contender to appear in a BCS bowl.

Carolina's year?

When do you think the pieces will be in place for South Carolina to make a legitimate run at the SEC East title? Or do you think it may never happen? I hope this will be the year. What do you think the chances are?
Sumter, S.C

If it's going to happen, this would seem to be the season the pieces come together for the Gamecocks.

Coming off a decent '09 season, the Gamecocks return quarterback Stephen Garcia, who is the most talented passer coach Steve Spurrier has had during his tenure in Columbia. Garcia is a junior, and as previously stated, that's often the season in which quarterbacks make notable improvement.

The Gamecocks also return their top two receivers and have a big-time running back, five-star prospect Marcus Lattimore, arriving this summer.

Now, they do have some serious work to do to bolster the offensive line, but a new offensive line coach and a couple of newcomers at least give some hope.

The defense endured some significant subtractions, such as linebacker Eric Norwood. But seven starters are back, and coordinator Ellis Johnson is among the best at his craft. He will get the most out of whatever talent the Gamecocks have on defense.

Yet, the reason for optimism at South Carolina goes way beyond the Gamecocks' own prospects. The traditional SEC East bullies appear more vulnerable than usual, so a team such as South Carolina has a better chance than usual to win the East.

Florida is without quarterback Tim Tebow, and that's obviously a huge loss. Remember, some Floridians were proclaiming him the best player in the history of college football. He wasn't, but he was a great talent and his absence will be felt. So will the loss of the Gators' top two receivers, several soon-to-be NFL players on defense and former defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who is now coach at Louisville.

Georgia likely will start a redshirt freshman at quarterback and brought in a new defensive coordinator (Todd Grantham) to patch up that leaky unit.

Tennessee has a new coach (Derek Dooley), a new starting quarterback, five new stating offensive linemen and a revamped linebacker corps. The Vols are also losing their three best defenders - All-American safety Eric Berry, defensive tackle Dan Williams and linebacker Rico McCoy.

South Carolina has a proven coach in Spurrier, an experienced quarterback, good receivers, a promising running back and a defensive coordinator that typically fields a solid unit. Meanwhile, the competition appears to be going through periods of transition. It's now or never for South Carolina, and now seems genuinely possible.

My money still would be on Florida, though.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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