The play's the thing for quarterback Michael O'Connor

VANCOUVER The Penn State Nittany Lions won their 2015 home opener before a crowd of 93,065.

Michael O’Connor could have been with the Lions, but he probably wouldn’t have been any closer to the action than the sideline.

The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds won their home opener against the Regina Rams later the same day before 6,958.

O’Connor played in this one.

“Just being able to come here on the field and make some throws, there’s no better feeling,” the 19-year-old Ottawa native said. “It’s a great feeling to be able to help out on the field.”

It had been a while since O’Connor felt that way. After a brilliant 51-touchdown-pass season for Ashbury College, he cycled through two U.S.-based prep schools and became a highly touted prospect worthy of a full NCAA Division 1 athletic scholarship offer from Penn State University.

Between the time he enrolled there in January 2014 and the start of the following season, Bill O’Brien, the head coach whose staff had recruited O’Connor, left Penn State for the National Football League’s Houston Texans. His replacement was James Franklin, who had previously tried to recruit O’Connor for Vanderbilt, so the Canadian quarterback stayed put, but he never took a meaningful snap and ended up third on the depth chart. In addition, starter Christian Hackenberg was only a year ahead, so O’Connor faced the prospect of two more seasons of little or no on-field duty.

He announced his intention to transfer, and Blake Nill noticed.

Nill had run a successful Canadian Interuniversity Sport football program at the University of Calgary, but he was lured to take over a Thunderbirds team that had enjoyed little success since its third Vanier Cup national title in 1997.

He contacted O’Connor and pitched his vision of a top-quality Canadian university program, the beauty of Vancouver and the idea that O’Connor’s dreams of playing professional football weren’t dead. After all, more than 20 Dinos were drafted or signed by Canadian Football League teams during Nill’s nine seasons with Calgary.

“I definitely have been to a lot of places the last couple of years, and it has been quite a rollercoaster ride; a lot of ups, a lot of downs,” O’Connor said after the Thunderbirds defeated the Rams 27-20.

“But, honestly, you can’t look past tomorrow. I just try to wake up every morning and do the best that I can and where it takes me.”

Nill said he relayed news of O’Connor’s mid-February commitment to the Thunderbirds to a reporter seconds after it happened because he wanted other potential recruits to see the news.

“There’s no question that Michael is going to provide stability in our recruiting efforts,” Nill said.

In the first half of Saturday’s game against Regina, O’Connor looked like a pro prospect: quick feet, an arm capable of making passes all over the field and the ability to stand in the pocket and take hits. He was 13-for-23 for 240 yards and one touchdown as his team built a 24-1 lead.

After half-time, though, all the Thunderbirds struggled. The Rams deserve a lot of credit for that, dominating time of possession and keeping the UBC offence on the sidelines as they made the game close.

O’Connor completed just six of his final 14 throws for 63 yards. At least one pass was dropped, but other incompletions resulted from throws that were off target, and the Rams should have intercepted one that was thrown into a crowd of defenders in the fourth quarter.

“There’s a lot to work on. Some good things, a lot of bad things, though,” O’Connor said following the game. “We came out strong in the first half, played well in the first half, but we were too flat in the second half and that starts with me.

“I have to be better for this team, but I still did a lot of good things as well. We do have a lot of work to do, but it’s encouraging. We have the potential.”

That sounded a lot like what Nill offered when he talked about the young quarterback and his team, which beat the Laval Rouge et Or in a preseason contest at Quebec City, but lost their Canada West conference opener in Calgary despite a school-record 102-yard pass-and-run touchdown from O’Connor to running back Marcus Davis on the first play from scrimmage.

“Some inconsistencies, yes,” Nill said. “Often Michael is trying to do too much, but, when he given some support, he makes a lot of really good plays.

“But he’s just a youngster, he’s just a kid. He has to deal with a lot. Whether it’s the NCAA or CIS, when there’s a free (pass rusher) coming off the edge that’s 230 pounds and running right at you, there’s an urgency in terms of making your reads and getting rid of the ball.

“Michael, I’m going to tell you one of the things that impresses me the most about him is he picks himself up after every hit, goes back in the huddle and tells the guys, ‘Let’s get ready for this next play.’”

If he had transferred to another top-level NCAA football program, O’Connor would have had to sit out the 2015 season before beginning three remaining years of eligibility; at lower levels, he could have started four more seasons. With UBC, because he didn’t play for Penn State in 2014, he could line up behind centre for as many as five seasons.

Under current rules, he would be eligible for the NFL draft in 2017, but not until 2019 for the CFL‘s Canadian college draft. He says confidently that his ambition to play as a pro remains intact.

“Yes sir. That’s the goal. That’s the plan.”

(Photo: Richard Lam, UBC)

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