Danny O’Brien’s whirlwind college football career has taken him from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten. It will conclude in the lesser-known South Atlantic Conference.
O’Brien, the former Maryland and Wisconsin quarterback, will play his final season at Catawba College, a Division II school in Salisbury, N.C. Todd Willert, O’Brien’s high school coach at East Forsyth in North Carolina, confirmed O’Brien’s decision to FOXSportsWisconsin.com
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“He just wants to go and have some fun and play some football,” Willert said. “I think he’s excited to play back in North Carolina so it’s not so far away from everything. Family and friends and everybody can go watch him in his last year. I think he’s looking forward to that.”
Catawba, which has an enrollment of 1,300 students, is located roughly 50 miles from O’Brien’s hometown of Kernersville, N.C., and provides O’Brien, a fifth-year senior, with the opportunity to play right away.
His final season of college football will come mostly out of the spotlight he faced over the last four years. Catawba’s football venue, Shuford Stadium, has a seating capacity of 4,000. That number pales in comparison to the seating capacity at Byrd Stadium in Maryland (54,000) or Camp Randall Stadium in Wisconsin (80,321), where O’Brien previously played. Even the town of Salisbury, N.C. (population 33,663) is smaller than both stadiums.
Willert said Catawba’s coaching staff was familiar with O’Brien because of his success as a high school quarterback in the area, which contributed to their intrigue in bringing him in. O’Brien did not immediately respond to FOXSportsWisconsin.com’s request for comment.
First-year Catawba head coach Curtis Walker spent the past 10 years as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Costal Carolina University. And offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kevin Brown served as an assistant at Coastal Carolina the last 10 seasons. Brown worked closely with quarterback Tyler Thigpen, who became the school’s first-ever NFL draft choice in 2007.
“Danny’s got some very strong coaches down there, especially for Division II,” Willert said. “I think that’s a reason why he chose them also. I’ve had some past relationships with the guys from Coastal Carolina that are now up at Catawba. Those guys knew who Danny was back in those days when they were recruiting.”
O’Brien’s college career has no doubt been a rollercoaster ride. He earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors as a redshirt freshman at Maryland in 2010 under head coach Ralph Friedgen after throwing for 2,438 yards with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 10 starts. He helped lead the Terrapins to a 9-4 record that season but struggled as a sophomore when the Terrapins underwent a head coaching change and switched from a pro-style to a spread offense.
In 2011, O’Brien threw for 1,648 yards, seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. And coach Randy Edsall eventually benched him in favor of backup quarterback C.J. Brown, which prompted O’Brien to look elsewhere for places to play.
“Danny is a drop-back quarterback,” Willert said. “It’s a very specific type of offense to be in for Danny. Danny’s not a zone-read guy. When a head coach changes and a different offense is put in, that makes it tough.”
O’Brien transferred from Maryland to Wisconsin — which used a pro-style offense — under the graduate transfer exception rule and was eligible to play immediately for the Badgers. He won the starting quarterback job and started the team’s first three games before being benched at halftime of Wisconsin’s home game against Utah State for his inability to hold on to the football or move the offense.
For the remainder of the season, O’Brien was relegated to backup duty. He appeared in seven games total and completed 52 of 86 passes (60.5 percent) for 523 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He also fumbled five times and lost three.
Wisconsin underwent a coaching change in December when Gary Andersen was hired to replace Bret Bielema, who left for the head coaching position at Arkansas. But O’Brien continued to slip during spring practices under a new staff in the battle for the starting quarterback job. He likely would have entered the 2013 season fifth on Wisconsin’s depth chart and instead opted to leave the program.
O’Brien will play for his fifth coach in as many seasons when he begins fall practices at Catawba, and the atmosphere will represent a far cry from his days at Maryland or Wisconsin. But Willert noted O’Brien appeared content with his decision.
“I think he wanted to be closer to home,” Willert said. “I see him here, he’s here at the high school almost everyday using our weight room or out throwing or running. I just see he’s back to his old self. Very easy going. Smiling all the time. I think he’s looking forward to going out and just having fun playing football.”