COLUMBUS, Ohio ― The bowl practices provided Isaiah Pryor his showcase opportunity for Ohio State.
The Cotton Bowl itself served as a reminder of exactly what the Buckeyes are going to expect from that position when they call on him for real.
Just in case there was any doubt about the standard at safety, Damon Webb made it as clear as possible in his last outing with the program. He flew around to make tackles all over the field. He scooped up a fumble. Then Webb jumped in front of a pass from a potential top NFL draft pick at quarterback, danced into the end zone and claimed the game’s defensive MVP award in the process.
And now all Pryor has to do is match that as he tries to take over a starting role in Ohio State’s playmaking secondary with Webb heading off to the NFL.
“Man, he really left a legacy,” Pryor said in the locker room after the game. “That set a foundation for us to pursue our vision, and they really just challenged us to go out there and try to be better than they were as far as all these totals and rankings and stuff like that. To be honest, they really prepared us to make sure that we know what it should look like to be out there on the field dominating like he did.
“I’m happy for him. He played one of his best games all year. But with Dame gone, there’s an open spot, and we’re all going to be competing for it.”
After repeatedly turning heads during the postseason practices, Pryor figures to be at the top of that list of candidates as the Buckeyes dive into winter conditioning before reporting for spring ball in March. And while he had already impressed with some contributions on special teams and in reserve duty defensively, it was in those December workouts where Pryor really started making a move to help ease the transition with Webb set for his finale with the program.
The former 4-star recruit had limited game opportunities to show what he could do last season, finishing with 13 tackles, 2 passes broken up and a sack as a freshman. But those opportunities were encouraging for the Buckeyes, particularly since the roster doesn’t boast much experience among true safeties at this point.
Ohio State could convert a couple of cornerbacks to bolster the competition at safety alongside Pryor and Jahsen Wint, and odds are that it will, considering how many elite players it already has at that position. But Pryor at least may have earned himself a head start in that race to replace Webb, potentially putting him in line to form a partnership with Jordan Fuller at the back end of the defense.
“Isaiah has really taken strides,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “ … It’s neat, we get to see them the whole time. We’ve had however many bowl practices, 15 or whatever it is, it’s almost like another spring practice.
“I think two guys in the secondary who have played some for us but got a lot of defensive secondary reps are [cornerback] Jeffrey Okudah and Isaiah Pryor. I think those guys have really performed well. They’ve taken advantage of all these reps.”
Okudah had a chance to turn practice into game production in the Cotton Bowl after Denzel Ward elected to skip it and declare for the NFL draft. Pryor didn’t get that same shot, instead watching Webb shine in the dominant outing against Pac-12 champions USC and star quarterback Sam Darnold.
But his chance is coming. And Ohio State soon could be counting on him for a lot more than practice snaps.
“Man, I’ve doing a lot of extra studying, been working hard on all my skill sets and stuff like that, leading everybody, trying to make everybody be the best they can be, whether that be scout team with just giving a good look and stuff like that,” Pryor said. “For me personally, a lot of this year was about the mental side of it as far as situations on the field ― that part of the game, not so much the physical stuff. Coach Schiano has helped me a lot honing my skills, and I’m excited for next year.
“We’re going to see who gets that spot. But I’m going to give my all, play my hardest and try to go out there and start.”
Webb gave one last reminder of what it takes in the Cotton Bowl.
Now it’s up to Pryor to follow that MVP blueprint.