“There’s the main street here and another street with some stuff on it,” O’Brien said. “But that’s it. Easy to focus on football. The cool thing is, the practice field is the same size, and I’m throwing to guys who want to work just as hard. Maybe it’s not as big time, but football is football.”
The fifth-year senior is at his third college, working with his fifth coaching staff and learning a fifth offensive system. Needless to say, this wasn’t how his career was supposed to go. Curveballs, coaching changes and missed opportunities have put O’Brien on this unlikely path.
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “The way my personal career has gone, I don’t regret it because it made me who I am . . . but I do want to show people I can still play.”
O’Brien, 22, says he doesn’t spend much time on the past. He knows he’s still trying to reach a bar he set as a freshman and began practice last week feeling different than the past couple of seasons. The stresses and peripheral concerns that come with playing for a Division I program are gone. This is his last chance, and O’Brien is focused solely on playing the best football possible.
“He’s kind of his old self now,” said Todd Willert, O’Brien’s former coach at East Forsyth High, about 45 minutes away from Catawba. “He’s smiling all the time. You can just see he’s back to being happy.”
In 2010, O’Brien was a redshirt freshman who wrestled away Maryland’s starting quarterback job. He threw for 2,438 yards and 22 touchdowns, and Maryland posted a 9-4 record. But after the regular season, offensive coordinator James Franklin, the Terps’ head coach-in-waiting and one of the biggest reasons O’Brien came to Maryland, left for a job at Vanderbilt and Ralph Friedgen was unceremoniously relieved of his head coaching duties. O’Brien was suddenly a quarterback with no advocate.
“That’s the business. To sit here and sulk on it, blame someone else, I think would be a waste of time,” he said. “It happens every year in college football. There are new coaches everywhere. It’s part of the business. It’s obviously caused a lot of bends in the road, as opposed to if Franklin or Friedgen would’ve stayed four years, but hindsight is always 20-20.”
O’Brien and Maryland’s new coach, Randy Edsall, never meshed. O'Brien was benched at one point in 2011 and later suffered a broken arm. The quarterback decided to transfer after a disastrous season — 10 interceptions, seven touchdowns, a 56.4 completion percentage — in Edsall's system. O’Brien said the two haven’t spoken since. “I just wish him the best of luck,” Edsall said recently.