Michael O’Connor doesn’t know what his long-term future holds, but his goal for the time being is clear – be a key part of reviving the UBC Thunderbirds football program.
Incoming Thunderbirds head coach Blake Nill caught everyone’s attention in February when announcing that he’d recruited the Ottawa-born quarterback, who left Penn State after one season to enroll at UBC.
Nill called O’Connor, 19, “the real deal” when revealing the young pivot was Vancouver-bound. O’Connor said one reason he joined the T-Birds because he has a similar belief in his new coach.
“Coach Nill is a great coach and he’ll turn the program around,” O’Connor said Monday after standing in to throw for a few dozen players attending the BC Lions’ evaluation camp for junior and draft-eligible CIS players.
“Coming in here knowing that we can build something special here from the ground up was very attractive.”
O’Connor finished his high school playing days in the U.S. and reportedly drew interest from a dozen American programs before settling on Penn State. But he didn’t get much opportunity with the Nittany Lions and has a full five years of athletic eligibility by coming to Canada.
He is still months away from taking his first snaps with the Thunderbirds, but will have had lots of chances to brush up on the Canadian game before then. On top of his appearance at the evaluation camp, he’ll join the Lions for their main training camp in Kamloops at the end of the month. That will be invaluable experience, particularly as he chases his aspirations of playing professionally someday.
“One thing I’ve heard is that CFL defences are a lot more complex than CIS defences, and likewise with the offensive playbooks. That’s one thing I really want to get out of this is getting down the plays so I won’t be overwhelmed four or five years from now,” he said. “I’ll be prepared. That’s one thing as a quarterback, you have to be prepared.
“So I think if I can come in here, learn some plays, talk with the coaches, it’ll be a good experience for me.”
It’s been a long time since a Canadian made an impact as a quarterback in the CFL, but Nill had a successful track record of moving players along to pro during his time leading the Calgary Dinos and St. Mary’s Huskies. O’Connor has a lot of years ahead of him to develop into a future pro, and doesn’t think returning to his home country will limit his chances to play south of the border, either.
“I can’t say what the future holds,” he said.
“If I do get a shot in the NFL, that’s great. But if I get a shot in the CFL, I’ll also be prepared for that. Anything that comes my way I’ll be grateful for and I’ll take the opportunity, but all I can ask for is an opportunity.”
The majority of the players participating in the evaluation camp came from British Columbia Football Conference squads, and got a chance to work out in front of some Lions’ brass in a combine-type format.
A handful will be part of the Lions’ rookie camp later in May, but the evaluation camp provides all players a great taste of what can be expected at the next level, said Langley Rams running back Nathan Lund. The 19-year-old got an invite to the rookie camp last year based on his performance at the evaluation camp.
“I had a lot better e-camp this year than last year, so I’m hoping that I might get an invite to rookie again and maybe see a couple days of main camp,” said Lund, who ran the 40 in 4.52 seconds during the camp.
Getting on the Lions’ radar one camp at a time amounts to “baby steps,” said Lund, but he added that events like Monday’s make the goal of playing in the CFL someday feel attainable.
“When I was 18 last year going into rookie camp … I made some catches on some people,” he said. “Then (during the CFL) season, I see some of these people I made catches on out there playing. So when I see that, that gives me a lot of confidence, (knowing) that if I can play with these guys, I could definitely be out there.”