Isaiah Pryor finds long-term fit at rover in Notre Dame's defense
Isaiah Pryor made his Notre Dame debut with a violent collision.
Nine minutes into his first game with the Irish, the Ohio State grad transfer leveled Duke punt returner Josh Blackwell.
Pryor’s timing was perfect. As soon as Blackwell caught the first quarter punt by Jay Bramblett, Pryor launched into Blackwell and took him to the ground with a loud thud.
Pryor didn’t transfer to No. 4 Notre Dame (5-0, 4-0 ACC) looking to be a special teams standout. A decrease in playing time in Ohio State’s defense led Pryor to pursue a grad transfer in the first place. But as he struggled to find a role in Notre Dame’s defense, Pryor didn’t take his special teams role for granted.
“It’s something that shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Pryor said Tuesday. “Most of the times it could be the difference between winning and losing the game. I take it very seriously.
“I try to do my hardest to make sure that I get my job done and make sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to do and being a leader any way I can even if that is special teams.”
Pryor certainly set a tone in the season opener. He added a second tackle in punt coverage in the third quarter.
Despite the special teams success, the 6-foot-2, 204-pound Pryor couldn’t crack the safety rotation in Notre Dame’s defense. Pryor, who finished his Ohio State career with 47 tackles and one interception in 31 games, started seven games at safety as a sophomore in 2018 before falling out of the lineup. His future at the position seemed to hit a dead end early in his Notre Dame career too.
Even with Kyle Hamilton sidelined with an ankle injury, the Irish weren’t turning to Pryor in a starting safety role. That’s because Notre Dame’s coaching staff was quietly transitioning Pryor to the rover linebacker position.
It wasn’t a switch that was going to lead to immediate playing time. Starting rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was already considered one of the top linebackers in the country. And junior Paul Moala, a sophomore, had shown flashes at the position as a backup.
Still Pryor embraced the position switch.
“Moving to rover has been a great experience for me,” Pryor said. “I played a decent amount of it in high school actually. So it was something that I felt comfortable doing. Going in there and playing more of like a hybrid position — covering, blitzing, doing that type of thing.
“And also helping out the team any way that I can. So when they asked me to make the move, it was no hesitation. Whatever they needed for me to do, I would do it.”
Pryor, a four-star safety recruit in the 2017 class, had the rare opportunity to be patient as a grad transfer. Because he graduated from Ohio State in December of last year with a bachelor’s degree in human ecology, Pryor left the Buckeyes with two years of eligibility remaining. Due to the NCAA extending an extra year of eligibility to fall athletes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Pryor could still be playing at Notre Dame in 2022.
Pryor has plenty of time left to find a role with the Irish.
“That wasn’t necessarily a factor that I felt like I had to worry about that much,” said Pryor, who is pursuing a Master of Business Administration at Notre Dame, “but I definitely see myself expanding more into the rover role, being good at it and setting myself up for a continued education here too … I’m very excited for what the future holds.”
The future could come sooner rather than later for Pryor. Moala’s season was cut short with a torn Achilles. Sophomore Jack Kiser, who has played rover for the Irish, is also competing for time in the buck linebacker rotation.
Pryor took advantage of backup rover reps late in Notre Dame’s 45-3 blowout of Pittsburgh. On the first two plays of Pitt’s last drive in the fourth quarter, Pryor recorded a tackle on first down and a strip sack on second down. After forcing the fumble, which Pitt recovered, Pryor looked to Notre Dame’s sideline with a shrug.
His play has challenged the Irish coaching staff to consider how to get him more involved in the game plan.
“Really impressed with his performance,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “He’s long. He’s sudden. Part of this process — and we’ve talked about Isaiah a little bit — is finding a niche and a place for him.
“Taking Jeremiah off the field is not really an option. It was in this instance because we were up, but we got a glimpse at what he can do. So now that gets you starting to think, ‘Where can he may be fit situationally for us to maybe maximize what he has for us even this year?’
“That opened up a nice segue into conversations with our defensive staff as to maybe we can find a role even right now for Isaiah that is more expansive than what he has.”
Saturday’s game at Georgia Tech (3:30 p.m. EDT on ABC) will be a homecoming of sorts for Pryor. The Yellow Jackets (2-4, 2-3) play in Atlanta less than an hour from Pryor’s hometown of Lawrenceville, Ga.
Pryor said Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins spoke with him about a potential landing spot while transferring out of Ohio State, but Pryor didn’t want to return to Georgia to finish his college career. The path to playing time may have been easier for Pryor at Georgia Tech, but Pryor’s starting to find clarity in what the future holds for him at Notre Dame.
His teammates see it too.
“He wanted to play safety, but he knows what’s best for the team and knows that he has a future at rover,” said safety Kyle Hamilton. “He can be a great rover. We saw a glimpse of that last Saturday.
“The best is yet to come. If he just keeps his head down and keeps working, he’s going to be a great player.”