Ohio State’s recruiting class of 2017 is entering a pivotal season.
Those Buckeyes are entering their third season in Columbus, which means they’re expected to be ready to play significant roles for Ohio State if they haven’t already. Each of them now have two years as Ohio State players under their belts, and by the end of the upcoming season, all of them will be on the back end of their careers while some of them will have decisions to make about whether it’s time to go to the NFL.
With that in mind, Eleven Warriors is taking an individual look this offseason at each of Ohio State’s third-year players – in descending order of their 247Sports composite recruiting rankings – and the expectations that preceded their Ohio State careers, how they have performed in their first two seasons as Buckeyes and the outlook for the remainder of their careers.
In the eighth installment of the Third-Year Reset, we take a look at safety Isaiah Pryor, who is looking to bounce back and re-earn playing time on defense this season after losing his spot in the starting lineup midway through last season.
Before He Became a Buckeye
A native of Lawrenceville, Georgia, Pryor began his high school football career at Archer High School in his hometown, where he blossomed into one of the nation’s top defensive back recruits. He had already received from about three dozen schools in July 2015, prior to his junior year at Archer, when he made his commitment to Ohio State.
In one of the most talent-rich counties in the country, Pryor earned All-Gwinnett County honors in his junior season at Archer. He completed his high school career by playing his senior season at the vaunted IMG Academy, where he teamed up with fellow 2017 Ohio State signee Marcus Williamson in the Ascenders’ secondary to help them to an 11-0 record as one of the best teams in the nation.
Pryor was ranked as the eighth-best safety and the No. 63 overall prospect in the class of 2017.
Career to Date
As a true freshman in 2017, Pryor immediately earned a spot on Ohio State’s two-deep at safety as well as regular playing time on multiple special teams units. He played in 13 of Ohio State’s 14 games and saw playing time on defense in eight of those games, finishing the season with 114 total defensive snaps – the fifth-most snaps on either offense or defense among all true freshmen in 2017.
In that limited playing time, Pryor recorded 13 total tackles, two pass breakups and one sack.
That put Pryor at the front of the pack to replace Damon Webb in the starting lineup last season, and that’s exactly what he did for the first eight games of last season, starting seven of them (the only exception coming when he was suspended for the first half of the game against Indiana for a targeting penalty). He played 394 defensive snaps in those eight games, playing the majority of snaps in a rotation that also included Jahsen Wint.
Pryor struggled with blown coverages and missed tackles in most of those games, however, and was one of the weak links on an Ohio State defense that was statistically the worst in school history.
After missing the Buckeyes’ games against Nebraska and Michigan State with a shoulder injury, Pryor never played another defensive snap for the rest of the year. Brendon White took advantage of Pryor’s absence from the lineup in those games, emerging as a breakout star, and remained the second starting safety alongside Jordan Fuller for the remainder of the season while Pryor played only on special teams.
Pryor finished the season with 31 total tackles, one tackle for loss, one interception and five pass breakups, but it was the plays he didn't make that ultimately defined his sophomore season, and which he will need to bounce back from to regain a place in Ohio State’s defensive lineup.
Despite his struggles last season, Pryor still has a shot to earn significant playing time in Ohio State’ secondary this year. He spent most of the spring running with the first-team defense at safety, indicating that he’s still in the mix to potentially play a substantial role this year.
With a pair of new secondary coaches in Jeff Hafley and Matt Barnes and new defensive coordinators in Greg Mattison and Hafley, last year’s performances hold less weight than they might with a returning coaching staff, giving Pryor a legitimate opportunity for a fresh start and compete his way back onto the field.
He did enough this spring to earn the start at safety with the first-team defense in the spring game. White singled out Pryor as a player who was “doing really well” when asked who he thought made strides at safety this spring.
That said, it would come as a surprise if Pryor began this season as a starter like he did last season.
While Pryor was with the first-team defense all spring, that was mostly because of the absence of Fuller, who did not practice at all this spring while recovering from injury. And while Fuller’s presence didn’t keep Pryor out of the lineup to start last season, it more likely will this season.
Fellow third-year defensive backs White and Shaun Wade surpassed Pryor with their performance last season, and they appear to be the leading candidates to see the most playing time alongside Fuller this year. Neither is set to be a full-time safety this year – White is now playing the Bullet position as a linebacker/safety hybrid, while Wade appears likely to primarily play slot cornerback – but Ohio State’s new defense appears likely to feature more packages with a single-high safety, a role that will be fulfilled by Fuller.
That could leave only one true safety spot on the depth chart this year, and Pryor will also face competition for the No. 2 spot on that depth chart from sophomore safety Josh Proctor, who drew repeated praise for his playmaking ability this spring. Ryan Day listed Proctor when asked about Ohio State’s most improved players this spring, so he should have a chance to earn some playing time this fall.
Depending on how much Ohio State’s new defensive coaches opt to rotate or utilize different packages in the secondary, there could still be a role for Pryor. Barring injuries, though, it looks most likely that Pryor will be a backup – who should also continue to be a core special teams player – this season.
If Pryor doesn’t earn his way back into Ohio State’s defensive lineup this season, 2020 will be his last chance to do so, as he is a true junior with two remaining seasons of eligibility.
That could be a better opportunity for Pryor to potentially re-emerge in a significant role in the Buckeyes’ secondary, as Fuller is in his final season of eligibility. Wade and White could also potentially be candidates to consider leaving early for the 2020 NFL draft if they have big 2019 seasons.
Nothing is guaranteed for Pryor at this point, though, because Proctor looks like a prime candidate to take over Fuller’s role next season if he continues his upward trajectory. And even if White or Wade leaves after this season, it’s unclear whether Pryor would be a fit for the roles they are likely to play this season – though Ohio State’s new defensive coaches have expressed a desire for interchangeable parts, which could make the scheme fluid to whoever the Buckeyes’ best defensive players are at any given time.
Pryor still has the tools to emerge as a playmaker in Ohio State’s secondary before his career is over, and he shouldn’t be written off because of one disappointing season. He’s now on his third position coach in three years (Greg Schiano in 2017 and Alex Grinch in 2018), and if Hafley and Barnes can help him develop as a safety and get the most out of his ability, he could leave Ohio State as a future NFL player.
Because he was unable to hold down his starting spot last season and because of all the talent around him in Ohio State’s defensive backfield, however, Pryor is going to have to impress on the practice field and take advantage of the opportunities he does get to play in order to earn his way back into the lineup.