COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State's secret weapon isn't much of a secret.
After two years of tutoring, coaxing, learning and waiting, Terrelle Pryor is no longer just a gifted athlete but a genuine quarterback.
It's almost too much for assistant head coach and wide receivers assistant Darrell Hazell. His voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper as he says, "You've just seen the beginning of greatness, I think. I believe that. He's so much better right now. He looks like a true quarterback. He gets back in his drops now, sees the field so much better now than he did last year — so much better."
Regardless of the departures and arrivals that make up a typical year for a college team, Ohio State's coaches think the biggest difference in the second-ranked Buckeyes this year is Pryor's comprehension of the position.
"The fun part of what we do is that every guy that comes in at 17 or 18, it's dramatic how we see them change," coach Jim Tressel said. "Terrelle is no different. He just happened to be walking around with a spotlight on him the whole time. I think his change has been as significant as anyone else's."
The first test comes Thursday night when the junior leads Ohio State up against Marshall at Ohio Stadium.
"I really feel like a quarterback," Pryor said. "I feel like I can be a complete quarterback, but I can also run the ball. It's going to be interesting, just how much smarter I am and how much I grew. ... It's the first time I could actually look at film and see how much I've grown and matured. I go through the reads right, I hit my checkdowns now, I take the right steps in the handoff. It just feels like everything is good."
Despite winning 19 of 23 games since he took over as a callow freshman, those who see Pryor on a daily basis say he's only scratched the surface.
"The guy is a freak of nature," safety Jermale Hines said. "And not only is he a freak of nature, but he's coming along as a quarterback. He's starting to look off (defenders) and things like that. His arm has gotten way stronger. But I'm really not surprised because he's the hardest working guy on the team. Hands down."
In his first two years running the offense (he took over for Todd Boeckman four games into the 2008 season), Pryor has flashed the ability to make an eye-popping run with that fluid, 6-foot-6, 235-pound frame. When he is assigned to tuck the ball under his arm, or he is flushed out of the pocket, he puts pressure on a defense to break coverage and hunt him down. And he is extremely fast and elusive for a man his size.
"He's scary when he can run it and threaten the edge because he's a hard guy to tackle," Hazell said.
His passing, however, has been spotty. Even though he's completed 58 percent and has a 2-to-1 ratio on TD passes to interceptions (30-15), there have been times when he has been inaccurate and inefficient. He seldom threw deep or even medium-range passes. Some blamed a shot-put throwing motion. So Pryor worked for hour after hour on passing drills during the offseason, streamlining his release point and honing his touch.
Couple that and his running ability with his increased awareness of coverages and blitzes and he becomes potentially the best quarterback in the country.
"We always knew Pryor had the talent, the ability, it all comes down to what's going on in his mind," cornerback Chimdi Chekwa said.
Tressel said that it's taken time.
"Terrelle has a good confidence about himself instinctively," he said. "I also think that he has a tough standard of excellence that he puts on himself. I think he's grown into understanding that this is a journey and that every moment is not an end-all moment."
With increased understanding of what's going on around him on the field, Pryor has gained a lot of respect from his teammates.
"Last year TP was kind of just playing off his freshman year and still wasn't really sure of what was going on," cornerback Devon Torrence said. "But this year, man, he's very decisive when he's out there. He understands the whole package, what everybody's doing. And checkdowns. He's calling out the defense and the stunts and the blitzes and everything and he knows who the hot receiver is."
No wonder with a new season looming, Pryor feels as if he's at a crossroads.
"I'm very anxious, I'm a little nervous," he conceded. "But I also think we're ready."