After a whirlwind two-month recruiting process, O’Brien, who was born in the Minneapolis area, will follow in the footsteps of North Carolina State transfer Russell Wilson, who led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl in his only season of eligibility in Madison.
It was apparent since the middle of the 2011 season that O’Brien would strongly consider transferring during the offseason, but he needed to take a circuitous route in order to try to graduate early. In an effort to rein in expenses, Maryland’s football program paid for winter sessions classes only for those players who absolutely needed them academically, according to a person within the program who has knowledge of the situation. So O’Brien’s family paid for him to take the course in Australia that would help toward his business degree.
“He had to go to Australia to make it all happen,” Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema said in a telephone interview.
Bielema said that he has made no promises to O’Brien about starting this fall. The Badgers are down to two healthy quarterbacks in spring practice, Joel Stave and Joe Brennan, and highly touted incoming freshman Bart Houston will still be rehabbing from arm surgery next fall.
One of Bielema’s selling points to O’Brien occurred during O’Brien’s 48-hour weekend trip to Madison with his parents. Bielema envisioned a 2013 depth chart that could feature nine other seniors on offense and eight seniors on defense, making the Badgers contenders for the Bowl Championship Series title.
As he researched O’Brien’s background, Bielema was impressed with what O’Brien did on the field, especially during his 2010 redshirt freshman season in which he was named the ACC’s rookie of the year. O’Brien passed for 2,438 yards and 22 touchdowns in 10 starts.
But to Bielema, what distinguished O’Brien most was his maturity as a person and ability to persevere through adversity with a positive attitude. Since August, O’Brien was benched in the middle of the 2011 season, suffered a late-season broken arm and listened to Coach Randy Edsall question his commitment to the Maryland football program when O’Brien decided in February to transfer.
In public comments, O’Brien was nothing but complimentary toward Maryland football and the coaching staff, taking the high road through it all.
“He never said anything ill-will about anything that went on,” Bielema said. “He took it as a learning experience. When you have a kid who has that ability, as a quarterback, you are the face of the program, and he really understands that. He is a kid who has a great vision and ability to see the big picture.”
Todd Willert, who coached O’Brien in high school in Kernersville, N.C., said: “He just smiles at every bit of adversity. He just smiles, takes it on and goes from there.”
During the recruitment process, Bielema leaned heavily on Willert, a close mentor to O’Brien. Bielema then spoke with a number of his assistants who had relationships with coaches who worked for former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen as well as Edsall. Bielema also had individuals reach out to Maryland’s business school.
“People out there would do anything for him,” Bielema said. “He came highly, highly recommended.”
One of O’Brien’s longtime goals has been to play in the NFL. Bielema emphasized to O’Brien that last season there were 14 rookies on NFL rosters from Wisconsin, which he said represented the highest number in the country. And he said that this season he expects as many as 16 on NFL rosters.
During the visit to Wisconsin, O’Brien called Willert and simply said, “Coach, you should see how big these offensive lineman are at Wisconsin!”
O’Brien also visited Mississippi and Penn State and strongly considered Vanderbilt, whose head coach, James Franklin, recruited O’Brien to Maryland while he was the school’s offensive coordinator. After O’Brien decided to transfer, Maryland filed tampering charges with the ACC, alleging that Franklin had improper contact with O’Brien during the past season. Franklin has denied the charges.
“Danny is very, very hungry to get back to where he was during that successful 2010 season,” Willert said. “There are kids in the sporting world that deserve good things. And Danny is one of them.”
Maryland announced Wednesday that reserve defensive back Avery Graham has decided to leave the football program. Graham, who would have been a redshirt junior in the fall, will be given his unconditional release if he decides to transfer to another school.