Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien has a mind that's 'two steps ahead'

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 12:08 AM

Seventeen months ago, James Franklin's cellphone buzzed in the middle of a quarterback meeting. Maryland's offensive coordinator checked his phone, saw a text message from a North Carolina teenager and read it to quarterbacks Chris Turner and Jamarr Robinson. They offered a one-word response: "Wow."

Franklin has been around long enough to know that if prospects text their future offensive coordinator, he should expect basic questions about the Terrapins' offensive schemes. But the ones Maryland signee Danny O'Brien posed to Franklin as a high school senior went something like this: "When the Sam comes, I am hot, but it's to this receiver. What if they are in this coverage and that hot is not there - can I go to this guy?"

"It was like chess," Franklin said. "He was already two steps ahead."

O'Brien, 19, has yet to checkmate a division I-A opponent, much less complete a pass against one. Maryland's coaches have tried to play down expectations after O'Brien offered a tantalizing glimpse of his potential by throwing touchdown passes on three of the first four pass attempts of his career last Saturday against Morgan State.

But as Maryland prepares to attack 21st-ranked West Virginia with a two-quarterback system - both Robinson and O'Brien will play - this much is clear: O'Brien, a redshirt freshman, is now part of the equation because, while still a work in progress, his analytical approach, schematic mind and on-field poise set him apart from any young quarterback Franklin has ever seen.

"Extraordinary," Coach Ralph Friedgen said.

"Unusual," said his mother, Janie Wright.

Obsessed with schemes

With closely cropped hair, distinguished eyebrows and headphones around his neck, O'Brien looks like any lanky 6-foot-3 teenager who likes to dabble with a guitar or toss a football around with his sister. The difference is his mind.

His mother would regularly walk around the house and find a loose paper here, two loose papers there - all bearing intricate designs and a mix of straight and squiggly lines. She'd hold one up and ask, "Dan-O, what in the world is this now?" Offensive plays, different ways to attack different defenses, drawn by a 12-year-old.

O'Brien's obsession with schemes grew as he moved from wide receiver to quarterback early in his sophomore year at East Forsyth High, a school of about 1,800 students in Kernersville, N.C. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays meant 45-minute team film sessions. O'Brien craved more.

He would show up at the coaches' office on Saturday mornings to watch film of Friday's game with coaches over breakfast. His mother would drop him off at school at 6:40 a.m. - more than two hours early - so he could work out and then stare at a screen to study formations.

His coach, Todd Willert, at times felt "embarrassed that my quarterback knew more about the team we were playing than I did. It's very rare - I've been coaching 17 years - to have a high school kid say, 'Hey, Coach, did you see this?' And you have to say in the film room, 'No, Danny, I did not see that.' "

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