Onetime Wisconsin starting QB Danny O’Brien leaves program
MADISON, Wis. — The Danny O’Brien era at the University of Wisconsin is officially over.
Less than one year after arriving at Wisconsin as the team’s starting quarterback of the future, O’Brien has left the program. 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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“I just texted him,” Willert said by phone Monday morning. “He texted back. He said he wouldn’t be at Wisconsin this year.”
O’Brien came to Wisconsin last summer with much fanfare and was hailed by some as a program-saving quarterback one season after Russell Wilson’s departure. In 2011, Wilson produced one of the great single seasons in Wisconsin football history, throwing for 3,175 yards with 33 touchdowns and just four interceptions to guide the Badgers to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl appearance.
The comparisons drawn between O’Brien and Wilson seemed natural because both players shared a similar college football career arc. Both played for an Atlantic Coast Conference school before transferring to Wisconsin under the graduate transfer exception rule. Wilson arrived from North Carolina State with one year of eligibility remaining; O’Brien came from Maryland with two years of eligibility left.
But very little of O’Brien’s time at Wisconsin mirrored that of Wilson.
O’Brien did earn the Badgers’ starting quarterback job with a strong showing during fall practices. In his first start, he completed 19 of 23 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns during a victory against Northern Iowa.
It proved to be O’Brien’s only significant contribution at Wisconsin.
One week later, Wisconsin’s offense sputtered in a shocking 10-7 loss at Oregon State in which O’Brien fumbled the ball twice and lost one. His inability to move the offense or hold onto the football cost him the starting job the following week against Utah State. With Wisconsin trailing, 14-3, at halftime of the Utah State game and O’Brien again fumbling twice, then-Badgers coach Bret Bielema opted to replace him with quarterback Joel Stave.
O’Brien was then relegated to backup status the rest of the season. He appeared in four more games, including during the second half of games against Nebraska and Michigan State, but the Badgers lost both contests. O’Brien finished the season — and ultimately his Wisconsin career — completing 52 of 86 passes (60.5 percent) for 523 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He also fumbled five times and lost three of them.
Willert said he did not yet know where O’Brien would attend school next season but that O’Brien was back in his hometown of Kernersville, N.C., for the summer. Wisconsin’s football program began its summer workouts on Monday.
“He’s a great kid,” Willert said. “He’ll find something. I really don’t know what his plans are right now. If it’s to keep pursuing football, obviously he still has one year of eligibility left. I’m sure if it’s to pursue football, he’ll be very successful in that. Whatever he does, he’ll be successful in. He’s just that kind of kid.
“But in this day and age of college sports, nothing surprises me anymore. Four different head coaches in four years is pretty crazy.”
O’Brien did not respond to FOXSportsWisconsin.com’s requests for comment Monday.
O’Brien’s fall from the top was particularly surprising because of the instant success he experienced at Maryland. As a redshirt freshman for the Terrapins in 2010, O’Brien was voted the ACC Rookie of the Year, becoming the first player in program history to earn the honor, which began in 1975.
Under then-coach Ralph Friedgen’s pro-style offense, O’Brien threw for 2,438 yards with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 10 starts. He also helped lead the Terrapins to a 9-4 record.
The following season, however, Randy Edsall took over as Maryland coach and implemented a spread offense that did not suit O’Brien as well. In 2011, O’Brien completed 150 of 266 passes for 1,648 yards, seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Edsall eventually benched him in favor of backup quarterback C.J. Brown, which prompted O’Brien to look elsewhere for places to play.
Despite all of O’Brien’s struggles at Maryland and Wisconsin, he sounded upbeat about his role in the Badgers’ quarterback battle at the beginning of spring practices in March. Wisconsin had recently hired new head coach Gary Andersen, who brought with him a new offensive coordinator.
“I think it’s a clean slate, which is a relief,” O’Brien said then. “How last year went, I’ve learned a lot from it. I don’t mind being the underdog. It’s my third quarterback competition I’ve been in during my career, and I don’t mind being counted out right now.
“I feel like I have a lot to prove. I’m just going to be the guy coming to work every day that maybe no one talks about, which is fine. … I kind of use it as an opportunity to show my teammates how I truly handle myself when everyone is counting you out.”
Just a few weeks into spring practices, O’Brien fell behind sophomore Stave and senior Curt Phillips on the quarterback depth chart. At times during the spring, freshman Bart Houston even took snaps away from O’Brien.
During Wisconsin’s April 20 spring game, Stave and Phillips shared repetitions with the first-team offense. O’Brien went 0 for 3 in his only series of action with the Badgers’ reserves.
After three months of Twitter silence, O’Brien posted a cryptic-sounding message on his account May 2 that read: “I’ve had some serious ups..and some serious downs..but this story is far from over..”
The tweet included three photos of him: a celebratory shot in a Maryland uniform, a picture of him throwing a pass in a Maryland uniform and a photo of him being sacked and fumbling while in a Wisconsin uniform.
O’Brien, who had more than 8,000 followers, hadn’t tweeted anything since May 31. He apparently deleted his Twitter account a short time after this story was published.
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