The moderately thick dreads bush out the back of his helmet and lie on his jersey, covering his name’s stitching before reaching the top of the No. 25. His bulging arms are creased at the elbows, while his long legs are bent at his knees more than a dozen yards from the line of scrimmage. From a bird’s-eye view, he looks like Bob Sanders, the former Indianapolis Colts safety. A close-up when the play begins reveals more — that Calvin Pryor plays like him too.
Standing at 5’11″, the junior is versatile, aggressive and rangy, showing the ability to operate as a single-high safety in the middle of the field and a willingness to fill an alley in run defense. The latter comes from his strength and where he’s made the biggest impact, demolishing blockers and ball-carriers at an alarmingly high rate.
Although he occasionally takes a narrow angle, usually a sinful action in run defense, Pryor makes jarring hits that separate ball-carriers from the ball to make up for it. As we’ve learned in years past, and recently with the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, crushing hits can suck the life out of an offense and its players. That’s what Pryor did for Louisville this past season, opening games up with fireworks of his own, as seen against Connecticut.
Less than three minutes had gone by on the first drive, and UConn faced fourth-and-1. Like every other college offense seemingly does nowadays, it lined up in a shotgun set despite the short-yardage situation. The quarterback stood five yards from the center’s snap, and to his left was the running back. To his far right, well into the wide side of the field where the right hash was marked, the slot was aligned.
In between the hashes in the middle of the field roughly 18 yards away was Pryor lined up as the single-high safety. He wasn’t expected to be much of a factor on this running play, provided the defensive line and linebackers did their jobs.
That would quickly change, however. He would be inserted into the thick of the play the second the aforementioned slot receiver jetted across and took the handoff, wrapping around the left end of the formation. After a couple quick and choppy steps, the ball-carrier crossed the first down marker and found an alley being formed near the 35-yard line.
Meanwhile, Pryor lightly ran, patiently watching the back side to guard against a cutback while simultaneously keeping his eyes in front for a possible offensive breakthrough. As he came to the 33-yard line, he jabbed his right foot into the ground, leaned in his left shoulder and…BAM! A shoulder shot into the face of the ball-carrier flattened the runner out, knocking out his feet from underneath him and twisting his body to face the sideline, near where he fell on his side. (0:00)
Range is commonly defined as the ability to get from sideline-to-sideline fast, which Pryor shows here. He’s able to get to the sideline in a hurry even if he’s not necessarily the fastest in a 40-yard timing (4.58) and nowhere as fast as Bob Sanders was when he came out of Iowa (4.35).
But like Sanders, Pryor has another type of range: getting from his landmark to the line of scrimmage. Evaluators usually define it as “closing ability,” which is a synonym of range in football parlance. Both players are able to get downhill aggressively and hurriedly, showing a willingness to come from the middle of the field to fill the alley and make an impact on the run. Here’s an example of Pryor doing it against Eastern Kentucky.
Pryor is one of two deep safeties aligned before the snap. At the near hash, he’s a shorter distance from the line of scrimmage than his teammate, roughly 10 yards out. This signals a late rotation by the two, with Pryor likely coming downhill to fill the box as an eighth defender against a likely run call from 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) on third-and-2.
EKU’s quarterback turns to his left at the snap and hands the ball off to the back, who takes four steps and then cuts off his left foot into the thick of the trenches, where Pryor has suddenly barged into after mirroring the ball-carrier’s movements and then launching his body forward, hitting the ball-carrier, who is wrapped up but has the ball exposed. He fumbles out from his left forearm after Pryor puts his helmet on it, and the ball rolls out more than five yards behind the line of scrimmage. (1:11)
The range, the physicality, the playmaking ability, the dreads…all reminiscent of Sanders, who was drafted 10 years ago. Although the two don’t share the same height to speed ratio, they have many other similarities that could make Pryor a starter in the NFL.
Like Sanders was, Pryor is best suited as an asset in the running game and an underneath patroller (a Robber in a single-high set, for example), laying the smack down on receivers catching crosses and running backs carrying the ball.