One of the top quarterback prospects in North America is coming home to Canada. In 2014 Ottawa’s Michael O’Connor was ranked the U.S.’s No. 6 high school quarterback prospect by ESPN. Yet after just one season at Penn State, the 6-foot-five, 215-pound former Ashbury College star is leaving the Nittany Lions and will suit up instead with the UBC Thunderbirds.
While O’Connor didn’t play a down for Penn State as a Freshman (he lost the battle with fellow freshman Trace McSorley for the backup spot behind starter Christian Hackenberg – although both young QBs ended up being red shirted), his decision to leave the NCAA still raised a lot of eyebrows.
It’s rare for a truly top-ranked prospect to chose to play north of the border.
“It’s the question that has been begging an answer,” wrote the Vancouver Province’s Howard Tsumura in a recent blog. “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?”
When the Ottawa native spoke with local BC media after the transfer was made official, he admitted he was a little disillusioned with his experiences this past season as a college red-shirt.
Despite having offers from a number of NCAA programs (including Syracuse), he decided on UBC because of the unique combination of athletic and academic opportunities at the school. It also helps that since UBC is not an NCAA member institution, O’Connor will not have to sit out and will be eligible to participate in the 2015 season.
“It was a win-win,” the 19-year-old O’Connor told Tsumura. “It’s (being a professional quarterback) still my No. 1 goal. 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.”
Tsumura reports that O’Connor will enter UBC’s prestigious Sauder School of Business in the fall, and is interested in a career in real estate after football.
“It’s bigger than just football and that is a key point for me,” he told Tsumura. “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.”
TSN reporter and BC high school football coach Farhan Lalji says that recruiting O’Connor – “the best Canadian quarterback prospect since Jesse Palmer” – to UBC is a huge coup for new Thunderbirds Coach Blake Nill.
“We have the same vision as they do at Penn State,” Nill told Tsumura. “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.”
The 6’5, 215-pound O’Connor played for Ottawa’s Ashbury College and the National Capital Football Association’s Orleans Bengals before transitioning to a school in Tennessee. He then became the starting quarterback at the prestigious IMG Academy in Florida, which led to the scholarship offer from Penn State. In his senior season at IMG he threw for 1,804 yards and 18 touchdowns in just 10 games.
“There were a lot of different opinions on my decision,” O’Connor told Tsumura. “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.”
The UBC Thunderbirds were 2-6 in last season, and hasn’t had a winning season since 2004. Nill, however, is one of the most successful coaches in Canadian University history, participating in several Vanier Cups with both the Calgary Dinos and the Saint Mary’s Huskies.