March 28, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Danny O’Brien was sitting in class Wednesday on the University of Maryland campus when his cell phone “started blowing up.’’ He had a pretty good idea why. “I just figured that it came out,’’ he said of the breaking news of his decision to transfer to Wisconsin.
Maybe it was only appropriate that O’Brien was sitting in a “Leadership’’ class and “we were talking about composure and public speaking.’’ He laughed. How fitting. Less than an hour later, O’Brien was taking part in a teleconference officially announcing his choice.
It didn’t sound like it was an easy call, either.
“It was a big decision for me to pull the trigger on Wisconsin,’’ he said.
However, he also conceded, “I knew it would be a tough place to turn down.’’
From what he knew about Camp Randall Stadium, he said, “It’s a great place on game day to play college football.’’
From what he knew about the intangibles, he said, “Unbelievable tradition, great town, great fan base and, more importantly, great football team.’’
From what he knew in general about the players and the coaches and how they conduct their business, he said, “It was the complete package that I was looking for.’’
Upon further review, then, it was the right choice on many fronts, O’Brien stressed.
“The one thing I noticed that was big for me on my visit (to Madison) was fitting in with the players and the atmosphere,’’ he said. “Obviously, you’ve got to come in and earn your respect. The guys there are hardworking guys, no big egos on the team, a lot of guys that are hungry to win, and I respect that – that’s kind of how I approach the game.
“So I think it will be a good fit.’’
It was an ideal landing spot for a combination of reasons, he reiterated. “The kind of vibe I got when I was at Wisconsin was special,’’ he said. “It was kind of everything I was looking for going into this process.’’
Plus so much more, he added.
Speaking from the heart, O’Brien said, “There was no denying after I took the Wisconsin visit, especially after talking to my family about it, that Wisconsin was home and it just felt more like the place that I wanted to be.’’
Although he went to high school in North Carolina before matriculating to Maryland, where he will graduate in three years, O’Brien’s roots are in the Midwest, specifically Minneapolis, Minn., where he lived until he was 12. He has extended family in the Twin Cities area.
“My first taste of football was watching Big Ten football, so it has always been a conference that I’ve followed,’’ said O’Brien, whose dad went to Notre Dame, so he also followed the Irish. A cousin, Billy Rosenthal, played defensive back at UW-Stout.
“I had two aunts who graduated from Wisconsin, and they were pro-Badger right away,’’ said O’Brien, who had a couple of family members accompany him on his recruiting trip to Madison last weekend. Offensive guard Ryan Groy was one of his campus hosts.
O’Brien hung out with Groy and had lunch with some of the offensive line. “They’re really competitive and great guys off the field,’’ he said. “You hear how big those guys are but until you actually see them practice, it does no justice (to them).’’
While he didn’t get a chance to meet individually with the quarterbacks -- Joe Brennan, Joel Stave, and Curt Phillips -- O’Brien said that he has heard good things about them and he’s looking forward to getting to know them over the summer.
That goes for incoming freshman Bart Houston, too.
O’Brien was introduced to tailback Montee Ball, a Heisman finalist. “Anytime you can turn around and have him in your backfield, you’re feeling good about yourself,’’ said O’Brien, who sent a private tweet Wednesday to Ball, “Let’s do this, let’s get it done.’’
UW coach Bret Bielema and first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada both impacted O’Brien’s decision. “He’s a great guy, a straight shooter; he was upfront and honest the whole time,’’ he said of Bielema. “He’s a guy I can see myself playing for.’’
|The O'Brien media blitz
A look at reaction from around the Web on O'Brien's decision to transfer to UW, plus highlights of his introductory teleconference from Wednesday | Blog
Canada had been among the first coaches to contact O’Brien after he let it be known that he was transferring from Maryland. “We’ve developed a great relationship,’’ he said. “Coach Canada is an extremely sharp coach, very impressive.’’
What the Badgers do offensively was a major selling point in the final reckoning.
“The offense is going to be pretty much Wisconsin football,’’ O’Brien said. “He (Canada) brings a unique aspect to it with his experience, but there’s no question with the O-line and the running game at Wisconsin that stuff can stem off that. I love the system.
“It’s what we do well and it’s pretty similar to what we did at Maryland two years ago (when O’Brien was the ACC Rookie of the Year and a Freshman All-American), a more pro-style look and something I’m excited to get back into.’’
One of O’Brien’s earliest mentors was former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin, who left the Terps after O’Brien’s redshirt freshman season to take over as the head coach at Vanderbilt; one the schools that tried to get O’Brien on the rebound.
“That was a tough call to make,’’ confided O’Brien, “to call someone (Franklin) that I’ve had a great relationship with since I was 17 years old and let him know I wouldn’t be going there. I wish him nothing but the best, and we will continue to be friends.’’
After his Wisconsin visit, O’Brien went back to Penn State for a second look, primarily to attend a practice. “I thought it wasn’t fair to see one school practice and not the other,’’ said O’Brien, who was photographed Monday wearing a Nittany Lions jacket.
Some jumped to conclusions.
O’Brien was merely looking to stay warm.
“It was about 45 and pretty cold,’’ he said, “and I only had a T-shirt on.’’
O’Brien knows there will be comparisons with Russell Wilson. “Our paths are kind of similar coming from the ACC to Wisconsin specifically,’’ he said. “But it’s a new year and new season; 2012 has yet to be written. I’m a completely different player and a different guy.’’
O’Brien has not spoken with Wilson, save for an exchange on Twitter after O’Brien made his announcement Wednesday.
“I have a lot of respect for him as a player and competitor,’’ he said. “I kind of followed him from a distance because he was an ACC guy and Wisconsin was on TV quite a bit. He was a great player and he did a lot of great things at Wisconsin, and that’s forever.’’
In 2010, O’Brien passed for 417 yards and four touchdowns in Maryland’s 38-31 victory over NC State. Wilson threw for 311 and rushed for 53. While they may not be alike physically, or in the way they play quarterback, their study habits are very similar.
Both are big on logging time in the film room.
“I’ve always kind of liked the mental approach to the game,’’ O’Brien said. “I feel like I’m mentally prepared for every situation -- knowing where to go with the ball makes the game a whole lot slower. I learned that by getting a chance to play early (at Maryland).
“I’m definitely a pass-first quarterback with a little bit of mobility and escapability. I pride myself on being very prepared and accurate with the football and moving the chains and just getting it (the ball) in the hands of the playmakers.’’
O’Brien said that he’s physically ready to compete after breaking his left arm last November against Notre Dame. “The arm has been 100 percent for about a month now,’’ he said. “I got lucky. It didn’t need surgery and it set perfectly. It’s stronger than ever.’’
So his is commitment to academics. O’Brien, who’s taking 18 credits this semester, will graduate in mid-May with a degree in business management. He plans on going through the formal graduation ceremony. “My mom wants me to walk (the stage),’’ he said.
O’Brien hopes to relocate to Madison in early June.
That will allow him to take part in the summer conditioning program.
“My plan is to go in there and not really say a whole lot about what I’m going to do,’’ he said. “Just go in there and work hard and try to be the hardest worker out there. I know there are a lot of hard workers on that team.
“But that’s the best way to earn respect -- show it by example -- show them that I’m here to work hard. I’m a team guy, and I’m coming in here to help win games.’’
How much pressure will there be on O’Brien to get the Badgers back to Pasadena?
“You love to have those high expectations and expect to win like that,’’ he said, “but I’m not going to try and swallow that all at once. I’m going to come in there and first learn the playbook, work hard to get through camp and then it’s Northern Iowa up first.
“That’s how you have to approach the season -- not what you’re going to do all at once but a game at a time approach that mitigates the pressure you put on yourself and allows you to keep focus on the short-term goals.’’
There will be no looking in the rear-view mirror, either.
“I don’t regret one day that I’ve been on campus at Maryland,’’ he said. “But I do feel rejuvenated to close this chapter and start a new chapter. It’s refreshing, it’s exciting. I’ve got a lot to prove all over again.
“That’s something that’s got me pretty excited.’'