Wednesday, August 22, 2012
O'Brien set for clean slate at Wisconsin
By Adam Rittenberg
MADISON, Wis. -- This month isn't the first time Danny O'Brien has competed for and eventually won a starting quarterback job at the college level.
Wisconsin's offensive playbook isn't the first O'Brien has had to learn. It's actually his third in as many years. Aside from perhaps Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, no Big Ten quarterback is more accustomed to changes than O'Brien.
But make no mistake: Wisconsin affords O'Brien a fresh start in 2012.
"It was a new slate," O'Brien told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "Obviously, I bring some experience, both good and bad from the past two seasons. But being here and being the new guy was almost like being a freshman again. You've got to prove yourself to the players. People hadn't really seen me play live, so here, I had to come in and earn it."
O'Brien earned Wisconsin's starting quarterback job Sunday night after a strong two weeks in camp. His accuracy jumped out to the coaches -- he only threw one interception during the first chunk of camp -- but his command of the huddle, his preparation, his efficiency and the way he blended in with a new team landed him the top spot.
Danny O'Brien played in an offense similar to Wisconsin's during his freshman year at Maryland.
Although most anticipated O'Brien to win the starting job after transferring to Wisconsin from Maryland, Badgers coach Bret Bielema insists the competition was genuine as Joel Stave and Curt Phillips pushed the new arrival.
"I know the outside world thinks, 'Oh, yeah, big surprise,'" Bielema said, "but it wasn't locked in by any way, shape or form in the inside world here."
The 6-foot-3, 223-pound O'Brien impressed Bielema with his comfort level in the offense, which closely resembles the scheme O'Brien ran as a redshirt freshman at Maryland in 2010. That year, he passed for 2,438 with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions, earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors.
A coaching change in College Park brought a different system, one based more around the zone read. O'Brien struggled last fall, throwing more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (7).
"That's why I came to play college football," O'Brien said, "to be in a pro-style offense and be under center, do some things that this kind of offense allows a quarterback to do."
Although O'Brien isn't a major running threat, he's not a bad athlete, either. In fact, his legs helped him clinch the starting job during a play in Saturday's scrimmage.
The offense was in the red zone, and on a broken play, O'Brien scrambled to his left and fired a strike to Kenzel Doe in the back corner of the end zone.
"It was pretty impressive," Bielema said. "He's got the ability to make something happen when there's nothing there. People were pleasantly surprised with his athleticism."
Like his predecessor, Russell Wilson, who transferred to Wisconsin from NC State last summer, O'Brien hasn't struggled to establish himself as a leader. He received votes for team captain, a title Wilson claimed weeks after his arrival in 2011, and though the jobs will go to veterans Montee Ball and Travis Frederick, he knows where he stands in the locker room.
"The quarterback has to be the same guy in the huddle every single day," said O'Brien, who lives with two Badgers offensive linemen near Camp Randall Stadium. "Guys have to know what to expect out of you. That didn't change before or after being named the [starting] quarterback. We have a lot of great leaders on this team, so it's not coming in trying to prove a point. It's just being yourself every single day."
If those words sound familiar, Wilson had similar things to say after joining the Badgers last summer. The Wilson comparisons will continue to surround O'Brien, particularly given Wilson's record-setting season at Wisconsin and his early success with the NFL's Seattle Seahawks.
But Bielema isn't worried about O'Brien feeling the pressure to measure up.
"It's a nonfactor," Bielema said. "Danny is his own man."
O'Brien knows he's stepping into a successful situation at Wisconsin, which has won 32 games the past three seasons and consecutive Big Ten titles. In his mind, there are two options: fear it or embrace it. He's choosing the latter.
"I have a lot to prove to myself," he said. "I want to continue to build off good and bad from the last two seasons. This is a great opportunity for me to show what I can do."