Mark Story: EKU QB Pryor proves he was worth another look

EKU QB T.J. Pryor began last season as a preferred walk-on. But 2,153 passing yards later, he's earned his scholarship.
EKU QB T.J. Pryor began last season as a preferred walk-on. But 2,153 passing yards later, he's earned his scholarship. ALL

T.J. Pryor doesn't say much. Yet he is full of surprises.

Last season as a redshirt freshman, Pryor seized the Eastern Kentucky University quarterback job and established himself as one of the dynamic playmakers in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Which was surprising since Pryor had exactly zero NCAA Division I scholarship offers coming out of Ballard High School.

For a time, it appeared Ball State would offer.

It didn't.

"Kentucky State and Pikeville (College)," Pryor said Tuesday of the schools that offered him scholarship money. "I thought I could play somewhere in Division I."

Trying to induce an offer for his standout even if it came from the Football Championship Subdivision, then-Ballard coach Mark Catlett contacted what was then the new EKU staff of Dean Hood.

"He called and said he had a really good player that wasn't getting any offers," Hood recalled. "We looked at tape on T.J. and we liked him, but we had some kids we liked a little more. They got our offers."

A few weeks later, Hood says, Catlett called back and asked if Eastern would be willing to take Pryor as a preferred walk-on.

"Heck, yeah," was Hood's reply.

Pryor spent his first autumn in Richmond running the scout team offense. And turning heads. "He wasn't here long," Hood says, "and we realized he had a chance to be something special."

After spring practice, 2009, Pryor was going through his "exit interview" when Hood informed the Louisville product that he was at last getting that elusive Division I scholarship.

"I got out of there and the first thing I did, I called my mom," Pryor says.

For a parent, there are few better phone calls than ones that come with the news that your child's college education is now paid for.

"The way it worked out, it was for the best," says Pryor's mother, Linda Fields. "Because he earned that scholarship. Nothing was given to him."

Last season, Pryor saw action in EKU's first three games as a reserve while playing behind the more experienced Cody Watts. That was the plan for Eastern's fourth game at No. 23 Eastern Illinois, too.

Instead, during warm-ups, it became apparent that a shoulder injury meant Watts would not be able to throw.

Says Hood: "I told the rookie, he was going to get to go."

Pryor went big. He completed 19 of 30 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns in a 36-31 EKU win.

The aerial show was surprising considering that Pryor, rangy at 6-foot-2 and built like the basketball player he once aspired to be, was thought to be more of a running QB.

Yet for the season, he wound up throwing for 2,153 yards and finishing third in the OVC in passing yards (195.7) a game.

"I was really surprised at how well I threw the ball, I really was," Pryor said. "Now, I'm at the point where I'd rather throw the ball than run it. But I will run it when I need to."

If last season was one of promise for Pryor, it ended as one of heartburn for tradition-rich EKU. After starting the season 4-2, Eastern lost four of its final five and finished 5-6.

It snapped a streak of 31 consecutive winning seasons for the Colonels.

"When I came here, I really didn't know that much about the Eastern history," Pryor says. "By the last game, all any of us were thinking about was the streak."

Eastern lost that final contest 34-26 at No. 15 Jacksonville State.

"It felt terrible to let that get away," Pryor said. "But all we can do now is start another winning streak."

Toward that end, Pryor has hit the weights with rigor over the off-season. He's added as much as 15 pounds of muscle to his sleek frame and now weighs in at around 195.

The Ballard product is especially excited over EKU's second game of 2010 — against Louisville in the expanded Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

"Everybody I know will be there," he says.

In between his football work, Pryor finds time to pop into EKU's Alumni Coliseum and shoot a little hoop. Says he spends a lot of time with his iPod, too.

I wondered if a guy used to an urban groove had discovered country music since he came east to Richmond.

Turns out, Pryor did have the Zac Brown Band's Chicken Fried on his iPod.

That wasn't even close to the biggest upset from the QB's musical selections.

"I have a Miley Cyrus song, Party In The U.S.A., too," Pryor said.

T.J. Pryor doesn't say much. Yet he is full of surprises.