Football: With union issue aside, Kyle Prater ready for big season

Alex Putterman, Sports Editor

Northwestern made clear at practice Tuesday all talking and thinking about union issues has been shelved for the time being.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald opted not to speak directly about the ongoing unionization process, and several players deflected the subject. Instead, the focus was on football.

“We’re focusing on us right now,” senior wide receiver Kyle Prater said. “We’re not trying to let any outside distractions get a hold of this team. We’re focusing on us and getting better and winning some ball games.”

Prater in particular has reason to be excited for actual football — by all accounts, he is healthier than ever and prepared to have a big season.

That return to health has been a long time coming.

The Hillside, Ill., native committed to USC in February 2010 as a five-star recruit but couldn’t stay on the field once he got there. After two injury-riddled seasons, Prater transferred back home to NU.

But injuries continued to nag the chiseled, 6-foot-5 receiver, who has appeared in 23 games but caught only 19 balls during his two seasons in Evanston.

But Prater says he’s fully healthy and feels great. He’s put on 10 pounds of muscle and has worked on ways of leveraging not only his physical gifts — remarkable size and strength — but also the canniness that comes from being around college programs for five years.

“I’ve been focusing on playing to my strengths and playing big, using my size and wits,” he said. “I’ve been in this game for a long time, so I’ve been using my size to my advantage.

NU is deep at receiver, with seniors Tony Jones and Christian Jones and juniors Cameron Dickerson and Miles Shuler, plus a crew of youngsters fighting for playing time. But there’s no question Prater can carve out a role, perhaps taking advantage of his physical stature on plays at the goal line.

On Tuesday, Fitzgerald went out of his way to bring up Prater’s development, noting the receiver’s strong performance in spring practices.

“I’m really pleased with the spring Kyle Prater is having,” he said. “From a football standpoint that’s easy, but for him it’s been a long, long, long road. To see that he’s finally healthy for the first time, I see a young man that’s really come into his own confidence-wise. I’m really happy for him, a guy that’s been through a ton.”

Fitzgerald said the Cats, who have one more full spring practice Saturday, have ground to recover. Their coach theorizes they’re not where they should be for two reasons: because they didn’t qualify for a bowl game in 2013 (and missed out on bowl practices) and because of “that distraction.”

His coach was referring, of course, to unionization, but Prater sees that as no distraction at all. He says the team’s focus and camaraderie are as strong as ever. He just wants to get on the field and enjoy finally being at full strength.

“Throughout my five years I’ve been banged up a little bit,” Prater said. “And now I’m really feeling the effects of being healthy.”

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