QB O'Brien's Journey Lands Him Back In N.C.
By Eric Russell
Danny O'Brien's journey in college football began on the field at East Forsyth High School in Kernsville, N.C. The lightly-recruited quarterback put up solid numbers for two season as a member of the varsity football team. Now, five years after graduating from the school and heading to Maryland, the final chapter of his unique college career will unfold a little more than 40 miles South of the school at Shuford Stadium in Salisbury, N.C.
O'Brien, the 2010 ACC Freshman of the Year with the Maryland Terrapins, will suit up for his third team in as many seasons. This time O'Brien won't be moving to a Big Ten powerhouse to run an offense with Rose Bowl hopes. Instead he will be competing to earn the starting quarterback job at Catawba College, a Division II school in South Atlantic Conference.
The position won't come with the hype of his two other schools. He won't be playing in front of 80,000 fans as he did at Wisconsin or even 30,000 like his first year at Maryland. He likely won't have highlights of himself appear in rapper Wale's music video as he once did.
O'Brien isn't concerned about any of that. For him, the mission is simple. He just wants to play the game he loves. That desire is why the senior said he has no regrets about the way his college career has played out.
O'Brien received offers from Duke, East Carolina and Maryland out of high school in 2009, and he ultimately chose to join Ralph Friedgen and James Franklin in College Park. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound quarterback redshirted in his first year with the squad along with fellow freshman C.J. Brown. O'Brien made the most of his chance when he earned the starting job the following season. He passed for 2,438 yards and 22 touchdowns in the 2010 season. After such a great year, he, like many others, expected to do great things in Maryland.
"I don't want to say that I wouldn't believe it because one thing I've learned in life is that you never know where your road will take you, but coming off that year I wouldn't have believed it," O'Brien said of his reaction had someone told him in 2010 that he would end up leaving the school.
His time in Maryland wasn't aided by the program's transitions. O'Brien, a recruit from the Friedgen era, thrived in the system Friedgen and offensive coordinator James Franklin put together. The turnaround season for Maryland didn't buy him more time in the system, though. Friedgen was fired just weeks after being named coach of the year and Franklin left to take the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. O'Brien said it's easy to speculate about how his plight would've been different without the departures.
"It would have been different had anything been different other than Coach (Randy) Edsall coming in. Obviously the chances of me staying would've been a lot higher. We had a lot of success in that offense and you see what Franklin is doing at Vanderbilt now," O'Brien said. "But, it's a business. ... As a player you understand that and just have to react to it as well as you can."
Edsall hired Gary Crowton, whom many felt wasn't performing well for LSU at the time, as the offensive coordinator. Crowton didn't subscribe to a philosophy of 'if it isn't broke, don't fix it.' He went away from the West Coast offense Franklin ran and installed a spread offense that didn't work as well for O'Brien or Brown, who split time in 2011.
The Terrapins regressed to an ACC bottom-dweller. O'Brien found himself in and out of the lineup before breaking his arm in what would turn out to be his last play in a Terrapins uniform. He was looking for another program at season's end.
Not What He Expected
O'Brien made his way to Wisconsin hoping to help out the Badgers. Little did he know he would be walking into more change.
O'Brien earned the starting job at the beginning of the 2012 season for a Badgers squad ranked 12th in the preseason polls. Unfortunately for him, the year didn't go as planned, and he was benched. He only saw action in six games and threw for 523 yards and three touchdowns.
O'Brien admitted that Wisconsin may not have been the best fit for him at the time, but he did gain quite a bit from the experience.
"I learned so much," he said during a phone interview. "Hindsight is always 20/20 on where you could've gone or where you should've gone. I did arrive there at a time when there was a lot of change ... and some stuff I didn't really know I was walking into."
The biggest thing that may have come from the experience in Madison for O'Brien is how it has molded his mindset going forward.
"I've learned a lot from my failures," O'Brien said. "It's been very humbling and it put a chip on my shoulder to prove the type of player I know I am. I've got to prove that this year on the field."
Another New Beginning
Players who leave programs sometimes get branded as impatient or afraid to compete for playing time, which isn't the case for O'Brien. He left Wisconsin because he wanted a chance to compete for the job. Wisconsin seemed pretty set at the quarterback position. It didn't appear a competition for the spot was in the works.
O'Brien didn't expecting to arrive at Catawba and be handed the reins. The Indians finished fifth in the SAC last season in passing offense. Freshman B.J. Sherrill led the team's passing attack, throwing for 1,986 yards and 15 touchdowns. First-year head coach Curtis Walker said despite O'Brien's pedigree, the quarterback position remains up for grabs this season.
"Just like at offensive line, linebacker, long snapper and every other position it's going to be a competition for the starting quarterback position," Walker said. "We're excited to have Danny in our program, and he knows he has to come in and work."
Working is exactly what O'Brien plans to do. He has expressed respect for Walker and offensive coordinator Kevin Brown. In addition, O'Brien is familiar with the offensive system.
"One of the big things for me was getting into a system I knew I was going to thrive in. Many of the concepts we're running in the run and pass game I've had success in going back to my days in Maryland," O'Brien said.
The Next Level
Despite the interesting arc of his college career, O'Brien still has aspirations of playing in the NFL. He doesn't feel that his various stops in college will affect his chances.
"I'm sure if you look from the outside, any guy that has transferred twice, you're going to have question marks about them or doubt their ability. My confidence has remained unfazed and (playing professionally) has remained a goal of mine."
O'Brien said playing on the smaller stage doesn't bother him. He is excited about his teammates and plans to take all of the lessons he learned at Maryland and Wisconsin and continue to apply them in the future.
"That's why I have no regrets, I've learned so much over the course of my college career," O'Brien said. "I just love the game. I really, really enjoy playing this game and want to play as long as I possibly can."