by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)
Hometown: Wellston (OH)
Position: Outside Linebacker
Star rating: Two-star, No. 191 LB
Ht/Wt: 6-0, 215 pounds
Other offers: Cincinnati, Indiana, Ohio, Toledo
What’s to like
Playing quarterback in high school, in addition to his preferred position, linebacker, afforded Prater the opportunity to learn the game from both sides of the field. Successful quarterbacks have extensive knowledge of defensive schemes and coverages, which allows them devise plays to exploit weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For Prater, a 2011 first-team all district and second-team all-Ohio honoree at Wellston (OH), playing the most important and mentally demanding offensive position granted him a better understanding of how to beat defenses. So when he plays linebacker, Prater has a good sense of how and in what ways opponents are trying to beat him. That experience helped Prater excel as a linebacker in high school and it will help him at the next level, where the competition is no doubt tougher. The difference is that he won’t be able to rely on his basic quarterback knowledge when he’s facing complex spread attacks masterminded by some of the best offensive thinkers in the nation.
Whether or not he’s ready to make the Jump, Prater offers an intriguing blend of sneaky athleticism and high football brain power that will help facilitate a seamless transition into his new lifestyle and team. Two of the most difficult stumbling points for incoming players at power conference schools are the speed of the game and the complexity of the playbook. Prater appears ready to conquer those concerns with relative ease, a versatile and skilled playmaker in a 6-0, 215-pound package with a high football IQ. He played nearly every position—Quarterback, linebacker, tailback, fullback, defensive end, inside linebacker, outside linebacker—in high school, so he provides a terrific understanding of the game on a macro level, with plenty of potential for positional flexibility.
When you mention recruits, discussion normally revolves around their strengths and weaknesses on the football field and what they bring to your program specifically from a football standpoint. Prater is obviously an accomplished player who should fare well under Pat Fitzgerald. What often goes overlooked is what these players do when they’re not playing, watching or involving themselves with football. Prater is that kid in middle school that would always beat you in every sport, no matter how much you practiced, trained or tried to sabotage him. There are kids like this in most schools, and it’s always interesting to see where their athletic exploits eventually take them. Given Prater’s diverse background, that he’s now playing football at a rising Big Ten program isn’t a huge surprise. In high school, Prater received All-TVC and All-district honors as a sophomore in basketball, while earning a spot in the 100-meter dash regional finals. He also mixes in MMA training with a grueling workout regimen that includes Olympic style power lifting and agility work. It remains unclear precisely how this will affect his NU football career, but Prater is an intriguing prospect with plenty of upside.
Prospects for next season
NU’s linebacker corps for the upcoming season is arguably the best since Fitzgerald took over in 2006. David Nwabuisi, a preseason Butkus award watch list member, and Damien Proby are proven veteran talents poised to make big contributions this year, while Colin Ellis and Chi Chi Ariguzo provide energy and athleticism. Depth won’t be an issue, either, with players like Drew Smith and Roderick Goodlow primed to play big roles. As talented and well-rounded as Prater seems, his playing time on defense would be scant as he competed with older and more experienced players at his position. This strong group of linebackers, if all goes according to plan, will not call upon freshmen for significant playing time this season.
Where Prater could conceivably make an impact this year is on special teams, where his high football IQ and pervasive tactical expertise would be major assets. Prater is a rugged and fierce tackler with loads of speed and athleticism. Which makes him a perfect candidate to chase down return men on coverage team, even as a true freshman. NU ranked 8th in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage last season, meaning they could use an energetic young sparkplug like Prater to improve its fortunes.
Then again, Prater may be better off redshirting and saving his eligibility for a time when his skills are in greater demand and he’s likely to see the field more often. The linebacker corps is for the most part set in stone, with some wiggle room for any freshman who vastly exceeds expectations in training camp. Chances are Prater won’t impress coaches to the point where his value this season exceeds the potential benefits—learning the defense, working in the weight room, adjusting to a new lifestyle without the considerable pressure that comes with each game—of a redshirt year. There’s good reason to thin Prater will shine after a developmental year, when he’s fully embraced NU and all it entails. Redshirting seems the best option for Prater, but it may go against Fitzgerald’s plans for the upcoming season.
What he’s saying
“Whatever it is, I go 110%. Every play, every rep in the weight room, in the classroom,” Prater said in an interview with Playnextlevel.com. “I’ve been lucky to be surrounded my whole life with people that push me and want me to do well, and I expect it out of myself to do well also. I’m always working to get better, getting pushed, working every day like there’s someone better with me.”
What they're saying
"Jaylen Prater is the type of linebacker Pat Fitzgerald falls in love with; a tough, hard-nosed player. He's athletic and has great field vision."--Chris Emma, Purplewildcats.com