EVANSTON, Ill. -- "Man, who is this guy?" Tony Jones thought to himself in the summer before his senior year of high school.
Jones, a senior wide receiver at Northwestern, was referring to Kyle Prater, the then-five-star prospect out of Proviso West High School just outside Chicago. Both Jones, a three-star pass-catcher, and Prater attended a Nike-sponsored high school camp at, as Jones called, "that school down south" or the University of Illinois.
"I wanted to line up next to him every time," Jones said of his time at the camp. "He didn't really interact with anyone. He was just in his own zone... It's just funny. I would actually try to keep tabs on him, like our freshman, sophomore years. ‘I wonder what this guy's doing.'"
At that point in his life, Prater was one of, if not the most talked about receiving prospect in the country. From coast to coast, schools were after Prater and he was rated, according to some recruiting sites, as the top receiver in the class of 2010.
"Look at all the hype that happens through this recruiting process and, fair or unfair, that's just the reality of the business. It had nothing to do with him," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
One scout from said that Prater "should have the same impact at the next level as Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Michael Floyd or DeAndre Brown did as a true freshman."
"Coming out of high school, you're young," Prater said. "I never really looked at that stuff. I used everything that they labeled me with as motivation. I mean, that's in the past."
He committed to USC after being recruited by Pete Carroll's staff. Then, after Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks and the Trojans hired Lane Kiffin, Prater honored his commitment, hoping to follow in the footsteps of former star wideouts Dwayne Jarrett, Mike Williams and Keyshawn Johnson.
Prater made one catch for six yards during his time at Southern Cal.
Following his redshirt freshman year, Prater decided to leave the program, citing family reasons that are still officially unknown. He then transferred to Northwestern where, in two seasons, he's grabbed just 19 passes for 113 yards.
It's an all too common archetype: the once-highly touted recruit failing to live up to the hype others threw on his all-too-young shoulders.
Even at six-foot-five, few, no matter how physically strong or gifted, can carry the seemingly infinite weight of expectations.
"It's a terrible narrative, as far as a story and as far as what happened to somebody," Fitzgerald said.
But, everyone already knew that.
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It's impossible to watch a Northwestern practice without fixating on Prater. He stands above his peers, often dancing to the blaring rap music with his helmet perched on his head. It's impressive, really. On routes that require his teammates to take four steps to reach the cut, Prater completes it in two bounds. His hands smother the football, making it look like a toy.
Prater has always shown those traits, those are nothing new. What has held him back is his speed and ability to separate from defensive backs. In large part, that has to do with his health.
Prior to his freshman season at USC, Prater missed spring practice with hamstring and thumb injuries and he ended up redshirting. In 2011, he again missed spring practice with a foot injury that lingered, along with other lower-body injuries, into the regular season before he came to Evanston.
"When he first got here, man, he had little [legs]," Fitzgerald said. "I had better-looking legs than he had back then."
Prater worked hard to get healthy but he was just never able to shake nagging groin and hamstring injuries for two seasons.
"I had to do a lot of things when I first came here," Prater said. "I came in walking wounded. I had to learn and grow and the strength staff really got me where I wanted to be and this past offseason, we really focused on my glutes and my hamstrings, everything I couldn't do for the two years I was here before. My legs are way bigger. My glutes are stronger all thanks to the strength staff and just listening to the trainers.
Prater's also eating better, cutting out certain foods like McDonald's and being more conscious of his day-to-day routine. He says he came into college at about 210 pounds and now weighs about 235. His body fat percentage, he estimates, is around six or seven percent.
"I'm blessed," Prater said. "This is the best I've ever felt. I just made it up in my mind that I wanted to transform myself from the beginning of the season last year and focus on everything and my body and attacking the game more like a pro. Just taking care of everything, the little things."
Throughout his career, injuries have prevented him from doing what many thought he was born to do: catch passes. Instead, he's become a devastating blocker, looking to help the team in anyway he can.
"Honestly, I've really never felt like I've played at where I wanted to be," he said. "But I always was out there. Coach Fitz can attest to this, he knows that I've been walking wounded but he knows that I was always fighting, doing what I had to do for the team. I can honestly tell you know that I feel to the point where I can do whatever I want out there and be physical and be dominant and do whatever they ask of me. "
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The media and Northwestern fans alike have always had a fascination with Prater. A novelty of sorts, players with the skills and reputation that Prater has don't come to Evanston often.
But for many of the reporters waiting to talk to Prater during his scheduled availability following Northwestern's second training camp practice, it will be their first time hearing him speak.
"Kyle's a remarkable person," Jones, now one of Prater's best friends, said. "And, he's very humble. I think that's one thing people don't know about him. He's been through a lot. He's overcome a lot of adversity. I couldn't imagine being the number one guy in the country and dealing with the injuries and all the hype and expectations. He's handled it well. He's stayed grounded. And, if anything, I think it's made him a much better player."
It would be easy for a player with Prater's story to still be irked by questions regarding his days as a top-ranked recruit. But the senior now looks back with a wiser eye.
"Coming out of high school the one thing I could say was that I was young," Prater said. "[There were] a lot of expectations and I hit a lot of adversity, but looking back then and looking where I'm at now, I don't regret what I've been through. I think it's made me a better person mentally and physically. You live and you learn. I can say that over the years, since 2010, I matured and I've grown just learning and looking at things more differently.
"It was pressure at that time, but that person is different. I'm a way different person now. I'm mature. I'm way better than I was then. I've overcome a lot to get to this point but I'm still going to have to endure like always. I'm very happy with where I'm at right now. I just want to keep building and getting better. "
While Prater has embraced some of his past, using it as motivation to help him improve, he's also had to lose many of the people who used to be close to him. With the attention he garnered as a prep star, many people pulled Prater in different directions. Now, Prater said, he has focused on those that are closest with him.
"Just my four: my mom, my dad, my sister and my girlfriend," he said. "That's it. I had to cut a lot of people loose in my life and just focus on me. I had a lot of people that were in my life at one point that are not there now. I just focus on my family, my teammates and keeping God in my life and keeping faith. That's it."
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From an observer's eye, Kyle Prater looks different this summer. His movement is more fluid and less mechanical. His legs look strong and he seems to be getting open at a higher rate. He has his degree in communications and is only taking one class during the season--an independent study that meets one time per week--allowing him to focus purely on football.
But even with his health and maturity, he still split first-team reps with Cameron Dickerson over the first couple days of practice.
But that's been typical for Prater. He has always been fighting, be it expectations, injuries, maturity or for playing time.
"I knew what he had gone through and I wasn't going to make excuses but I'm really proud of how he's battled," Fitzgerald said. "I don't think there's a guy in our program, everybody, everybody in the locker room, all the coaches, support staff that couldn't be more excited to watch a guy go out and really have a lot of fun because he's been through so much."
Now, four years since his college career began with as one of the crown jewels of a loaded USC recruiting class, Prater's journey may be at an end. With just one season left, the once-superstar recruit can reintroduce himself.
"Everybody knew who Kyle Prater was," Tony Jones said.
But who is he now?