Wednesday March 19th, 2008

Terrelle Pryor insisted for the past month and a half that he didn't put off signing with a college to shine the spotlight on himself. Maybe he was telling the truth.

Wednesday, the Jeannette (Pa.) High quarterback turned down an even brighter spotlight -- a chance to start for college football's winningest program as a freshman -- and instead signed with a team that almost certainly will force him to spend his freshman season on the bench.

By choosing Ohio State over Michigan, Pryor probably delayed his debut as a starter by a year. He also gave himself the best chance to succeed.

That may sound crazy. How could Pryor possibly be in a better position playing for a sweater-vest model at Ohio State than at a school with a hot young coach and an offense better suited to his talents? Two words: Tim Tebow.

What does the rising junior quarterback at Florida have to do with a player trying to choose between a pair of Big Ten powers? Everything. Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel referenced Tebow in his sales pitch to Pryor, suggesting Pryor might follow Tebow's career path if he chose Ohio State. In fact, rising senior starter Todd Boeckman may have provided Tressel the most assistance in landing Pryor. At Ohio State, Pryor won't face the early pressure he would have at Michigan, where he would have been expected to start immediately.

During Tebow's freshman year in 2006, Florida coach Urban Meyer eased in Tebow by occasionally using him to spell pro-style starter Chris Leak. The differing styles confounded defenses, helping the Gators won a national title. In his first full season as Florida's starter, in 2007, Tebow accounted for 55 touchdowns and became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. In Pryor's case, the part of Leak will be played by Boeckman, who led the Buckeyes to the national title game in his first year as a starter.

"[Tressel] said I'm going to work in, just how Tebow did," Pryor said during his press conference Wednesday. "That sounded good to me."

They celebrated Pryor's signing Wednesday in Buckeyeland. At the NCAA tournament regional site in Washington, Ohio State athletic director -- and tourney committee member -- Gene Smith enjoyed a giddy cell phone call near a group of reporters that included's Stewart Mandel. "... tell [quarterbacks coach] Joe [Daniels] congratulations and give him a hug for me," Smith was overheard saying.

Everyone in scarlet and gray understands all too well the value of using two quarterbacks with vastly different styles. Ohio State lost the national title game to a Gators team featuring Leak and Tebow, and in January the Buckeyes lost another national title game to an LSU team that used a pro-style (Matt Flynn) and dual-threat quarterback (Ryan Perrilloux).

Pryor said he asked several NFL scouts what they thought of his finalists. Once again, the T-word entered the conversation. "A lot of them said Michigan," Pryor said. "They also said Ohio State could be good because you could learn from a senior quarterback and then jump in and play like a Tebow."

But what about Michigan? Unlike Tebow, who is built to run Meyer's spread-option, Pryor turned down the coach whose offense appears to fit him best. He also turned down a chance to start right away, which, to many top recruits these days, is the No. 1 criteria.

The spotlight issue should get some of the blame. Pryor reiterated Wednesday that he did not delay his signing to get more attention. "People said I wanted to be the main topic of the day," Pryor said. "Ask my teammates. Ask anybody around me. I don't like being in the spotlight. I didn't ask to be No. 1 in the country." If this is true, it makes sense that Pryor would not have looked forward to the unique circumstances he would have faced at Michigan.

In any other year, the opportunities for Pryor at Ohio State and Michigan would have been equal. But this is no ordinary year in Ann Arbor. Coach Lloyd Carr retired, and successor Rich Rodriguez came from West Virginia with a radically different offense. Meanwhile, the Wolverines just lost four-year starter Chad Henne. Ryan Mallett, Michigan's Quarterback of the Future, 2007 Edition, transferred to Arkansas when he realized he didn't fit in Rodriguez's offense. That left the Wolverines with a quarterback corps that had combined to complete exactly one collegiate pass.

Naturally, all eyes turned to Pryor, a 6-foot-6, 235-pounder who appeared put on this planet to run the spread. Adding to the intrigue, Pryor held a press conference on national signing day to announce that he needed more time to choose a school.

It seemed perfect, but instead it was a perfect storm. Had Pryor chosen the Wolverines, he would have gotten "The Full Powlus" from the moment he stepped on campus. At that level of hype, Pryor would have been considered a disappointment by some if he didn't win four Heismans and four national titles and then successfully petition the NCAA to allow him to come back and win a fifth of each. That isn't the fault of Michigan fans, who generally are some of the sport's most reasonable; the circumstances created the hype.

Pryor said Rodriguez went down swinging Wednesday, continuing to pitch Michigan even as Pryor tried to break the bad news. Now, Rodriguez must choose a starting quarterback from a group that includes a promising Georgia Tech transfer (Steven Threet), a walk-on (Nick Sheridan) and the owner of the team's one career completion (David Cone). Rodriguez has said he would allow signee Justin Feagin to begin his career at quarterback, though Feagin may ultimately wind up a receiver.

Meanwhile, Tressel can plug in Pryor to a team that returns enough firepower on offense and defense to reach a third consecutive national title game. Pryor can play behind Boeckman and learn the system, and as long as the Buckeyes keep winning, everything will be peachy in Columbus. Of course, if Boeckman struggles or Ohio State stumbles early -- a Sept. 13 showdown at USC seems an obvious hurdle -- Pryor could experience another parallel to Tebow's freshman season. Lost in the hoopla of the title run was the fact that a significant number of Florida fans called for Tebow to supplant Leak as the starter after the Gators lost to Auburn that year.

Don't be shocked if Tressel and Pryor hear similar calls this fall. Because it doesn't matter where Pryor goes or how much he plays, the spotlight is going to find him.

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