The Province - UBC welcomes its football future, blue-chip QB Michael O’Connor ready to don blue and
VANCOUVER — It’s the question that has been begging an answer ever since February when Michael O’Connor, ranked the U.S.’s No. 6 high school quarterback prospect in 2014 by ESPN, announced that he was transferring from the storied NCAA program at Penn State to join the UBC Thunderbirds.
Why would a player whose football pedigree, shaped in part by a senior high school season spent at the prestigious IMG Academy in Florida, and last April going 11-of-16 for 81 yards before 72,000 fans at Penn State’s annual spring game, decide to take a different course, one which has brought him across the continent and then across the border to play in the CIS?
On Thursday, as the star pivot and Ottawa native met the media for the first time, the most concise answer came from Blake Nill, the ‘Birds recently-installed head coach.
“We have the same vision as they do at Penn State,” began Nill, who will have O’Connor for all five years of his CIS eligibility starting in the fall, “but it’s just a different culture in Canada. So for Michael to sort of see through the trees and realize that he can be satisfied with an athletic career here in Canada, that our program can get him to where he wants to be professionally if that is the path he wants to take, and most importantly to see what a UBC education can do for him beyond his playing years, is a really mature outlook.”
Admitting he was a little disillusioned with his experiences this past season as a college red-shirt, O’Connor — who played his final two seasons of high school football in the U.S. — decided to take Nill up on an offer to tour the UBC campus. Despite having offers from a number of other well-heeled NCAA programs including Syracuse, he then made the bold decision to join the Thunderbirds because he felt he would get the best of both the academic and athletic worlds.
“It was a win-win,” he said.
Yet on Thursday, he made it clear that coming to Canada was no reason to believe he couldn’t pursue his ultimate goal of becoming a professional quarterback, especially in the NFL.
“It’s still my No. 1 goal,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I have given up on a dream. I have just chosen a different route. I have faced challenges all my life, like moving away from home after 10th grade. It’s just another challenge. That’s how I see it. I can’t look at it and say there hasn’t been a Canadian quarterback to play in CFL in years, or rarely in the NFL. I can’t look at it that way. I just have to stay focused on what I can do every day to get better and it will play itself out, and whatever happens I will be happy.”
Interested in a career in real estate after football, O’Connor will enter UBC’s prestigious Sauder School of Business in the fall.
So many top prospects talk about how key an education is for them, but O’Connor’s actions alone prove its importance to him. That said, he can’t hide his love for the game.
“I’d say I like football more (than school),” he laughed. “But it’s bigger than just football and that is a key point for me. I’ll be able to further my education and get roots here. Another big factor was Vancouver. It’s a big town and I’ll be able to set myself up for a life after football. I think my parents raised me well. You come to realize that football can be taken away at any time.”
CIS regulations don’t allow O’Connor to take part in spring practice, so clearly he was enjoying a brief throwing sessions Thursday for the TV cameras with four of his new teammates, including receiver Alex Morrison.
As the session progressed, O’Connor put more and more muscle behind his throws, and the pop of the ball could clearly be heard as his passes were snared.
“When I caught the first one, it was like ‘OK, this guy can throw,’ laughed Morrison. “He has a very, very strong arm. I look forward to having him make all the wide-field throws and I am just really excited to get to work with him.”
So is Nill, who knows he has a player who can not only steer his program for the next five seasons, but promote it in ways he might not have dreamed possible when he took the head coaching job in December.
“He is a very articulate, very mature and he knows what he wants,” Nill said.
That much was evident when O’Connor was asked to weigh in on the level of surprise throughout the U.S. college football world when he decided to become a Thunderbird.
“There were a lot of different opinions on my decision,” admitted O’Connor, who over his senior season at IMG in 2013 threw for 1,804 yards and 18 TDs in 10 games. “But I am confident in it. At the end of the day I have to do what is best for me, and I can’t worry about what other people think. I look forward to being a part of something, part of a dynasty. That is what we’re trying to build here. Multiple national championships.”
UBC’s spring football practices run through Saturday, then resume with five more sessions April 29-May 2.