The Vancouver Sun - Heralded Penn State quarterback makes commitment to rebuilding UBC football

METRO VANCOUVER - When head coach Bill O’Brien left Penn State University to take up a similar role with the Houston Texans, the ball was set in motion for the biggest recruiting coup to hit the University of B.C. football program since . . . well, perhaps forever.

UBC head football coach Blake Nill, whose hiring from the Calgary Dinos in December was another major triumph for the Thunderbirds, announced Thursday that former Nittany Lions quarterback Michael O’Connor has committed to the ‘Birds for the start of the 2015 season.

O’Connor, a 19-year-old from Ottawa with pro size and aspirations, was ranked as the No. 6 prep quarterback in the U.S. by ESPN in his graduating high school year. A four-star recruit, he received multiple scholarship offers from SEC and Big 10 schools before deciding to attend Penn State.

The former Under Armour All-American played his final two years of high school ball at Baylor School in Tennessee before attending the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., as a senior.

“This guy here (O’Connor) is a pro style quarterback,” Nill explained, at a news conference inside the B.C. Lions’ facility in Surrey. “He’s got size (six-foot-five, 230 pounds), he sets quickly, he can throw the ball, and he’s a very intelligent young man. He has a 4.0 GPA (grade point average). He’s got the genetics, he’s got the mental capacity, and he’s got the desire to play pro. That’s one thing he made clear to me. ‘Coach, can you get me to the pros?’ I’ve got a background of getting young men to the pros. More guys, from the University of Calgary, have turned pro in the past 10 years than any other (CIS) program."

O’Connor committed to the Nittany Lions when O’Brien was still in charge. He did not play in his freshman season, however, when James Franklin replaced O’Brien as the head coach and O’Connor was slotted behind Christian Hackenberg, the Big 10 freshman of the year.

When O’Connor announced, late last year, he was leaving Penn State to transfer to another school, the Syracuse Orangemen were prepared to make him their quarterback of the future. He would have to sit out the 2015 season, per NCAA transfer rules, and have just three years of eligibility remaining. That’s when Nill swept in, selling O’Connor on the benefits of UBC and CIS play.

“The coaching change (from O’Brien to Franklin) was a big factor,” Nill said. “He felt a loyalty to the head coach there. When he (O’Brien) left to go to the NFL, it sort of threw him off a little. We took advantage of it. We put in our A effort. We showcased the school, the city and the vision of the football program. He thought it was worth taking a shot.”

The Thunderbirds, who haven’t had a winning season since 2004 and are 24-56 over a 10-year span, enticed Nill away from the Dinos in December through the efforts of UBC alumnus David Sidoo, a Vancouver businessman and influential Thunderbird football benefactor. Over nine seasons in Calgary, Nill compiled a 53-19 record in Canada West regular-season play, a 16-8 mark in postseason and three Vanier Cup appearances.

“I was sold on a vision by a group of administrators and a group of backers and alumni.” Nill said. “I was confident they wanted football to change (at Point Grey). Since I’ve been at UBC, I can honestly say we’ve done everything we can to make this a championship program. I came in with the mandate to change the culture and take UBC football to another level."

When O’Connor arrives on campus in the spring, he’ll have five years of CIS eligibility remaining.

In Nill’s view, a stud quarterback is the first step toward a Thunderbird football resurrection.

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