JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — At a chiseled 6-foot-5 with an All-America label from high school, Kyle Prater remains the Northwestern player a defensive coordinator would stare at and think: How on earth can we cover him?
“Just look at the guy,” quarterback Kain Colter said Friday after Gator Bowl practice. “He has all the physical abilities.”
But they didn’t translate into a big first season at Northwestern. The Proviso West alumnus caught eight passes for 47 yards with no touchdowns. And five catches came during the first two games.
But Prater isn’t down — and he has no regrets about transferring from USC.
“I’m very grateful, man,” he said. “My family loves it, and I’m so blessed and excited to be back home.
“We had a great season. I’m looking forward to the Gator Bowl and doing something special.”
What has held Prater back? Proviso West coach Famous Hulbert said it’s all about injuries.
Prater broke a bone in his left foot that caused him to miss 2011 spring practice at USC. He redshirted in 2010 because of a hamstring injury and a partially torn groin muscle.
“His health has held him back, but his work ethic is second to none,” Hulbert said by telephone. “He is driven to be great. Once he gets healthy, everything will take care of itself.”
The injuries slowed his conditioning, and that was exacerbated when Prater switched from USC’s traditional pro-style offense to NU’s up-tempo, no-huddle spread.
“I’m in the best shape of my life now,” Prater said. “I’m in a good place — running routes, coming out of my breaks. Things I couldn’t do at USC, I’m doing now. I’m focusing a lot more on my craft.”
Two practical matters also limited his production. Northwestern entered the season with veteran receivers Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence, Christian Jones and Tony Jones, the speedster who remains ahead of Prater on the depth chart at X receiver (split end).
And after attempting 407 passes last season, the Wildcats realized they’re at their best with an option-heavy attack spearheaded by Colter and tailback Venric Mark. NU quarterbacks have thrown 333 passes through 12 games, passing only 10 times against Iowa, 16 versus Illinois and 17 at Minnesota.
“We’re all hungry to touch the ball, make plays and score touchdowns,” Colter said. “That’s what we’ve done our whole lives. I’m sure (Prater) feels some of that, but he’s a great teammate. He’s not going to complain, especially when we’re winning.
“He’s still on his journey to get healthy. Once he does, the sky is the limit for him.”
Numbers aside, NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said the redshirt sophomore has made a “huge impact” because of his positive attitude and physical blocking on the perimeter.
“He got a couple of tough holding calls, but I told him every time he came off, ‘Good job,’ ” Fitzgerald said. “He had superior hands and moved his feet. Just because he kicked a guy’s ass, he got called for holding.
“Has he made the big plays that maybe some people want? The one thing Kyle has learned is not to worry about what’s out of his control. He had a lot of hype in recruiting, and because of that, some unfair expectations.”
Extra points: Former U.S. Open tennis finalist, NU alumnus and Jacksonville-area resident Todd Martin watched practice Friday morning, chatting with athletic director Jim Phillips. … After practice and a Chick-fil-A handout lunch, NU players were taken to a beach party at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. … Witnesses praised running back Tyris Jones for his karaoke rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” at a Thursday night event.
Twitter @TeddyGreensteinCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun