Ottawa Citizen - Ottawa quarterback Michael O'Connor picks UBC after leaving Penn State


“It’s going to be tougher, I’d say, but I think, if I keep my work ethic up and keep working hard, I’ll get a shot,” O’Connor said Friday.

“If you’re good enough, they’ll find you, right? I just have to keep working hard and I know I’ll get a shot, definitely.”

Fourteen months ago, O’Connor was a highly touted U.S. college football prospect sorting through a blitz of scholarship offers. He had gone from Ottawa’s Ashbury College, where in Grade 10 he threw 51 touchdown passes against seven interceptions, to Baylor prep school in Tennessee and was heading to IMG Academy in Florida before enrolling early at Penn State University.

Soon, though, he’ll be a University of British Columbia Thunderbird, having bought into what new coach Blake Nill is selling about reviving that program.

“It has been tough, I guess,” O’Connor said of shuttling from school to school, “but I’ll be going to UBC now, and I’ll be able to settle down for four or five years. It will be nice.”

His situation at Penn State became unsettled even before O’Connor arrived there. Bill O’Brien, head coach when O’Connor accepted his scholarship offer, left in January 2014 to join the NFL’s Houston Texans. James Franklin, formerly of Vanderbilt, replaced him.

O’Connor might have left then, too, but knew Franklin from the recruiting process and decided to stay put. However, Christian Hackenberg was established as the Nittany Lions’ starter and the Canadian quarterback ended up third on the depth chart, not playing at all in 2014.

Although his scholarship wasn’t in jeopardy, O’Connor announced in December he would transfer. He checked out Syracuse University and a few other U.S. options.

About the same time, Nill was enticed to leave the University of Calgary after a successful nine-year stint in favour of UBC, where the football Thunderbirds had been 24-56 over the previous decade and hadn’t produced a winning season record (4-3) since 2004.

Nill wanted to send a message, quickly, that the “new” Thunderbirds would go after the best of the best in order to become the best, so he called the 6-5, 230-pound O’Connor and his parents.

“At least I had his attention,” Nill said Friday from Vancouver. “The fact that he was listening to me gave me some traction, but I still knew I was against all the U.S. schools. I fully understood his reputation.”

Nill said he gave O’Connor his “A effort,” with the same kind of pitch UBC made to Nill about academics, Vancouver and a new vision for Thunderbirds football. Coach and quarterback also discussed prospects for a pro football future.

If he had landed at another NCAA institution, O’Connor would have been forced to sit out in 2015, after which he’d have three remaining years of eligibility. Under Canadian Interuniversity Sport rules, he can play next season and have as many as five years of eligibility.

Nill, whose Calgary teams played in three Vanier Cups and before that was 2-for-4 in national championship games with the Saint Mary’s Huskies, also mentioned the 23 Dinos players selected in the Canadian Football League draft during his tenure.

“I’m not the guy that decides if you’re going to play pro, but I’m the guy that can prepare you to play pro, and I believe I can do that (for O’Connor),” said Nill, a defensive lineman for four CFL seasons with the Montreal Concordes. “If this kid lives up to his potential, I’m confident I can get him up to the level that he aspires to.”

Canadian quarterbacks have been rare birds in the CFL, though. Even as talented an athlete as Brad Sinopoli, a Hec Crighton Trophy winner as 2010 CIS player of the year, lasted less than two years as the Calgary Stampeders’ third-stringer before being shifted to receiver, and it’s for that role that the Ottawa Redblacks signed him to a three-year contract as a free agent.

O’Connor said UBC was the only Canadian school he considered and, after two semesters at Penn State, he’ll enrol there as a second-year student in business. Currently training in Ottawa, he anticipates heading west in time to take summer courses.

Nill says the Thunderbirds will conduct offseason workouts in March, with the exact timing depending on a stadium renovation project, but full training camp only begins a week or so before their Aug. 29 preseason contest against the Laval Rouge et Or in Quebec City.

Another Ottawa teenager, 15-year-old Tyler Rehman, is a quarterback at Saint James prep school in Maryland and has stated his desire to play for the University of Southern California Trojans. As well, defensive lineman Neville Gallimore of Ottawa, now attending Canada Prep Academy in St. Catharines, Ont., has accepted a University of Oklahoma scholarship offer, and offensive lineman Graydon Campbell of Greely, currently at Episcopal High in Alexandria, Va., is bound for the College of William & Mary.

O’Connor, now 19, said he had no regrets about his route from Ashbury to UBC. For those contemplating a similar path in football, he recommended “just keep an open mind to everything.

“Follow your dreams, but know that (U.S. college football) is a big business. Just be aware of that, but definitely follow your heart and just have fun with it. It’s a big journey. You don’t know where it will take you, but just have fun with it.”

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