“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.
O’Brien landed in Wisconsin for his junior season — he graduated from Maryland after only three years, allowing him to play immediately after transferring — but lost the quarterbacking job after just three starts. When it became clear in spring practice O’Brien would enter this fall as the Badgers’ No. 4 or 5 quarterback, he knew another change was inevitable.
“When you’ve had some success, you want it back again,” said Franklin, now in his third season as Vanderbilt’s coach. “He’s had some success playing at the college level. It’s hard to just walk away when you know you have the ability to be a good player. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s continuing trying to find an opportunity to play the game and leave on a positive note.”
With just one season of eligibility remaining, O’Brien investigated his opportunities. Friedgen helped his former player navigate complicated NCAA channels and file a waiver request to play his senior season at Towson, one step down from Maryland and Wisconsin. The request was denied, and his search began to focus closer to home. Catawba had a new coaching staff and was in need of someone under center.
“When you’re trying to build a program, you’re looking for specifics,” said Curtis Walker, the Indians’ first-year coach. “How will he fit in? Is he a leader? What does he bring? We talked, and I realized he fit everything we’re looking for: leadership qualities, knowledge of the game and all the intangibles that we can mold our team around.”
O’Brien, who is six credits shy of his master’s degree, knew he needed a friendly home. He hasn’t given up on his hopes to play in the NFL, and Friedgen stressed to him that all the impressive game film from 2010 would be more than three years old by the time NFL scouts began studying next year’s draft class.
“I just wanted to find somewhere with a good nucleus of players, staff that believed in me and that I believed in and that ran an offensive system that I felt like I could thrive in,” O’Brien said. “Catawba fit all three of those things.”
He'll be playing in a pro-style offense with elements of a West Coast system. He’ll be operating no-huddle out of the shotgun, relying on timing routes, quick decisions and bubble screens to stretch and confuse defenses.
“I can make every throw a quarterback needs to make. I can make the right reads. I can get the ball out of my hand fast," he said. “I’ll have 12-plus more games to show people, ‘Here’s what I can do.’
“Honestly, I’m playing the best football of my life right now. I’m making throws I never could’ve made my freshman year. The game is way slower. The ups and downs have led to that, but I feel a lot more mature as a person, as well as a leader.”
On Aug. 13, O’Brien reported to the modest facilities at Catawba, where the weight room is under construction. He had been studying the Indians’ roster online, trying to memorize names and faces. It was a long week of introductions, but O’Brien hopes the four months that follow will leave a lasting impression in Salisbury and beyond.