Iona Pritchard was a two-way star at linebacker and fullback at Bingham High School. As a true freshman at BYU in 2008, he was the only player on the team to play on both sides of the ball.
Now back from a two-year football hiatus while serving in the South Pacific, Pritchard's early fall performance has been very surprising.
"Things are going good for me in fall camp, and I'll tell you what, we have a lot of good backs here," Pritchard said. "I'm just fortunate to be playing with them and working with them to get the offense down."
In joining this year's team, one thing that stood out to Pritchard was how much the roster has changed since his freshman year.
"It's kind of strange because when I was here there was Fui Vakapuna and Manase Tonga and all those guys. Now they've all graduated and there's a lot of new guys."
Physically, Pritchard passes the eye test. In fact, his physical condition has shocked BYU starting quarterback Jake Heaps.
"Iona Pritchard has done an amazing job coming back," said Heaps. "Having just come back off his mission, he's one of the best guys that I've ever seen physically. He's just so physically ready already, it's unbelievable."
During team scrimmaging, Pritchard has been running with the first- and second-team offenses, a pretty incredible accomplishment given the level of talent in the program and the fact that he hadn’t played the game in two years.
"For me, the main thing is just getting the plays down and adjust to the mental side of being on the offensive side of the ball full-time now," he said. "I'm learning my role within the offense and focusing on specializing in that aspect in what they want me to do.
"Before, I just took the green position, which is the I-back set, and for the most part it's pretty much the same now as far as scheme goes. I think for the most part it's pretty much the same."
While Pritchard currently plays the up-back or "green" position in the power I-formation, he's not a player relegated to being just a lead blocker. He's strong and fast for his size, and will be even faster the further he becomes removed from his mission. He’s also been given the opportunity to run the ball with the first-team and second-team offense.
In regards to the passing game, his routes are decent – he still has some cleaning up to do, which is expected – and he has soft hands. During Thursday's practice, Pritchard ran out from the backfield in a delayed timing route, caught the ball, made a move and ran upfield before being tackled after an 8-yard gain.
So, what's the secret to his early success?
"I don't have a whole lot of secrets," Pritchard said with a smile. "I'm just blessed to have great coaches and be around great players that help me. I think the one thing that has really helped me after I served my mission is the type of environment that we have here that has really helped me progress faster as a football player after my mission.
"BYU and the coaches are great at helping return missionaries get back to football-form quicker. I think that's one thing that I've really benefited from. The environment and how everything is set up here has really helped me progress faster and get better individually as a football player because of the program and those around me."
Pritchard admits that coming back and quickly being thrown in the fire is little like being a deer in the headlights.
"For the most part, I feel like that when I'm in there," Pritchard said with a smile. "I just try and calm myself and think about what I need to do, but, yeah, it can be little like that when you’re in there. I mostly just think about what the task at hand is while trying to calm myself down."
The eyes got a little wider when Pritchard was caught off guard during the team scrimmage part of practice. Lining up in the backfield in the pro set, he went over his keys while reading the defense. Then the quarterback barked out an audible and changed things up on him a little.
"Yeah, I don't know how that one ended up," said Pritchard with a laugh. "When I was in there I was thinking, 'Okay, I've got this guy to block.' Then I hear the audible. I was thinking, 'Oh man, that's me getting the ball!' I just tried to remember all the things the coaches teach us and do the stuff we practice."
"He's such a talented kid and knows football and is very smart to come into a new offense and picking things up as fast as he has," Heaps said. "He plays the game very physical and very nasty. He's shifty for a big guy and we have high expectations for Iona."
After seeing the production that Pritchard has yielded on the field this fall, it's going to be tough keeping him off of it this season.
"I'm very excited to have Iona on our team and he's the kind of guy you want to have on your team," said Heaps. "We have high expectations for him over the next three years. It's exciting because he's a young guy and we've got him for the next three years.
"I think we could see Iona Pritchard out there this year. He's definitely earned his way in the lineup so far in fall camp. I definitely think Iona will see some playing time this year and he'll definitely have a role in our offense. As far as how big of a role, I don't know yet. But he'll definitely grow into a bigger role as he's here longer and longer. It's fun to watch him."
Pritchard's early fall camp performance even took Coach Mendenhall by surprise.
"I rarely like to compare, but the best analogy would be that he's like Manase [Tonga]," said Coach Mendenhall. "He's going to be able to catch the ball well, block well, he can run it adequately as well, and really, really a nice addition and kind of up and beyond what I thought was capable this early. He's been one of the surprises to talk about."
"I'm trying to do my best to contribute and do what the coaches ask of me," said Pritchard. "The only thing I can really do is put forth all of my effort, work hard and try and get myself back to where I was my freshman year.
"I can't say that I'm content with my early performance because I know there are things I need to work on and have to get better each and every day, but I feel there are things that I am doing well. I just have to continue building on that part of my game while continue to focus on and get better at those things I need to improve on."
Fullback scouting report
While Pritchard is still shaking the mission rust from his legs, his potential is very high. He's already running with the ones and twos despite his two-year layoff, and has been the surprise of the backfield in fall camp so far. He's smart, physical and teachable, and has all the tools to be a well-rounded fullback when it comes to pass protection, lead blocking, running and receiving.
Regarding the team’s fullbacks, Coach Mendenhall said that “that Zed [Mendenhall] is more the I-fullback and Iona is more versatile and can do a little bit more with the ball. Each will have his role in the offense. Iona's will be a little more expanded than Zed's. Zed's role is more specific as a lead blocker.”
With the rapid emergence of Pritchard, Michael Alisa’s role will change a little bit, said Coach Mendenhall.
"Mike is coming somewhere in between [the other fullbacks]. [He’s] a little bit more athletic fullback, so he's also a potential ball carrier. We're still trying to identify what his role might be."