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(Posted 7:30 p.m., Feb. 4)
Former Orleans Bengal Michael O'Connor settling into Penn State

By Audrey Sbyder
pennlive.com

Former Orleans Bengal and St. Matthew High School grad Michael O'Connor is hoping to make his mark with the Nittany Lions at famed Penn State Univerisy. File photo

Before he packed his belongings into the car and drove seven hours with his parents from Ottawa to State College, freshman quarterback Michael O’Connor knew the routine all too well.

Sure, he’d be away from home for an extended period of time while focusing on football, attending classes and adapting to life on his own like every other college freshman. But, the same kid who hasn’t spent enough time in one place since he turned 16 to even take his driver's test will be in the same surroundings for the next four or five years if all goes according to plan. The early enrollee arrived at Penn State in January, making his latest stop the fourth school the 17 year old attended in the last four football seasons.

“It was tough being on my own at the beginning just as a 16 year old,” said O’Connor, who spent time honing his skills at boarding schools in Tennessee and Florida his junior and senior year of high school. “I’m pretty mature for my age though. … I feel like I’m grown up almost because I’ve been away from home for two years and I’m mature now and used to being on my own.”

O’Connor’s desire to leave home after his sophomore season of high school football at the Ashbury College in Ottawa stemmed from his desire to seek better coaching and top-notch facilities. It’s a path to earning a college scholarship that was once mixed with small bouts of homesickness, which would ultimately be outdone by athletic achievements and new-found independence.

His trips home the past year and a half have been infrequent, stopping for winter break for a few days and maybe a trip between camps in the summer. When he does return, his parents are impressed by how eclectic his interests are. He’ll show off his cooking skills and one-time desire to be a chef by making a peanut-chicken dish and of course naturally slip back into talking about the sport he’s always loved. He’s serious when he talks about his football goals and his desire to maybe test out Penn State’s business program, both focal points for the 6-foot-4, 226-pound freshman.

O’Connor learned from a young age how to handle being on his own and is the first to point out he’s had plenty of help along the way. Ever since he decided to continue chasing his football dream and seriously pursue the best opportunities to help maximize his skills there has been no looking back. O’Connor is now the second Canadian-born player on the Penn State roster, joining Toronto native Akeel Lynch.

“As a quarterback you will not develop in Canada,” said Victor Tedondo, O’Connor’s trainer in Ottawa who helped him attend camps in he states. “The whole process is tough on the kids because it is a business down there especially when it comes down to recruiting. The parents need to be aware of that. It won’t be easy at all for kids to get offers. Coming from Canada many of them don’t understand that.”

Growing up in Ottawa, Michael followed the lead of his older brother, Matthew, who played linebacker. Tagging along to games and practices sparked Michael’s interest in a sport that was a distant second to hockey for most of their friends. Michael tried ice hockey for one year as a boy but the experiment was short lived.

“I was brutal,” he said with a laugh, adding that he couldn’t figure out how to skate backwards or stop. “I’m better on my two feet than on skates.”

At age 7 O’Connor began organized football on Tedondo’s youth team and played center and moved around the offensive line. As a self-described “chubby little kid” he then shifted to linebacker, a position that between his brother, who now plays in the Canadian Junior Football League and his uncle, who played on a Canadian University team, seemed to run in the family.

At 12 years old Michael was in the gymnasium one day throwing the football around before practice and the coaches happened to catch a glimpse and liked what they saw. The team needed a quarterback that season so Michael stepped into the role and his baseball background helped the transition. It was a position that became a natural fit for him and once he hit a growth spurt in seventh grade that is when his seriousness about the sport started to set in. Track and field, baseball and basketball were fun too, but nothing seemed to capture his attention the way football did, his father recalled.

“He was always goal oriented and very focused, which is somewhat unusual for kids that age,” John O’Connor said. “He had his goals and for him he was latching on to something he really enjoyed. … Once he moved to quarterback it seemed to take off from there.”

In 2007 Tedondo started the Gridiron Academy in Ottawa which aims at helping the top youth football players in Canada find the best athletic opportunities. Tedondo would meet with O’Connor several times per week for additional conditioning sessions and the family placed Michael in the nearby Ashbury College high school where he played football as a freshman and sophomore.

Starting his freshman year there were recruiting camps to attend so he could try and earn a college scholarship. Tedondo and the other players in the academy would take a trip to the states at least once per month and participate in 7v7s, camps or various showcases. After O’Connor threw seven interceptions at the first 7v7 Tedondo said the quarterback, who has always been his toughest critic, saw just how difficult the competition was.

“Obviously football in Canada isn’t as close as it is in the states. We’re about six years behind,” Tedondo said. “He saw two of our kids, a defensive lineman at UCLA and an outside linebacker at Virginia, get scholarships. From that time on he decided he wanted to go to the states.
Michael O'ConnorPenn State quarterback Michael O'Connor traveled to the United States monthly as a freshman and sophomore in high school to gain exposure and to learn more about the quarterback position.

“He was a quarterback and I never had a quarterback before come from our program. We had defensive linemen, linebackers, but quarterback is a totally different game.”

O’Connor needed the additional coaching and exposure to garner scholarship offers and quickly realized that while people back home thought of him as a dual-threat quarterback, in the states he wasn’t nearly mobile enough.

“It wasn’t the best competition compared to the states obviously,” he said. “Up there people thought I could run, but down here I can barely run at all because there are just athletes all over the field.

“[Ottawa] helped me because that’s where I started and that’s where I got my roots. I owe a lot of credit to Canadian football and everything because from a young age they supported me even when I moved down here.”

Despite playing on a field that was 20 yards longer and seven yards wider than an American football field, O’Connor quickly caught the attention of coaching staffs when he camped at schools in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee, among others. He could process information quickly and while his arm wasn’t always the strongest there, the potential was obvious. As a sophomore in Ottawa he threw 51 touchdowns and seven interceptions while leading his team to an undefeated season. Still, the crowds of 200 people at games paled in comparison to what he saw when he visited campuses and saw how big American football was.

Once his first offer arrived it was quickly followed by six offers in five days. Schools wanted to learn more about O’Connor and with more camps to attend and more opportunities to learn he realized he needed to leave home. Tedondo advised he find a quarterback coach along the way too.

The thought of sending their barely 16-year-old son away to school was difficult for John and Debbie O’Connor to grasp.

“It wasn’t an easy decision at the time, but it’s something that very few people get the opportunity to just follow a dream like that and see where it leads,” John said. “To be quite honest he chartered his own path. It wasn’t easy for us as his parents. We had certain stipulations that his academics had to remain strong and they did.”

After researching boarding schools, driving through the South and touring their options, they settled on Baylor School, a prep school in Chattanooga, Tenn.

O’Connor headed to school in July already with scholarship offers from Mississippi State, Toledo and Buffalo. Tedondo found him a quarterback coach during the process. By the conclusion of his junior season and just six months after arriving in Tennessee, O’Connor’s stock continued to rise. After spending a day at a camp working with former Florida State Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke the young quarterback decided to move again.

“They were great down there in Tennessee,” O’Connor said. “You hear about southern hospitality and I definitely got a lot of that. They were very friendly and helped me. … The opportunity came for me to come down here to IMG Academy and the opportunity to work with coach Weinke was just too good to pass up.”

At the sports academy in Bradenton, Fla. O’Connor was part of the program’s first ever football team. Led by a talented group of players who all headlined their respective high school teams, O’Connor was a captain and what Weinke dubbed “a coach’s dream.”

During the 10-game season he completed 118-of-218 passes for 1,804 yards and threw 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. He added a pair of rushing touchdowns as the Ascenders went 8-2. In the offseason he watched as Weinke worked with an array of NFL quarterbacks who use the facilities to train.

“He’s not going to wow you with his arm strength but he throws the ball with great anticipation and he’s able to do that because he can process information,” Weinke said. “I think that’s where the great players separate themselves. Being able to understand exactly what to do and understanding the timing of it and I think he’s done an outstanding job with that.”

It was Bill O’Brien’s offense that initially attracted O’Connor to Penn State and by staying along the east coast it would make attending his games more manageable for his parents. They could ditch the computer live streams and see him play in person more than once or twice per year with Penn State being just seven hours away.

After competing in the Under Armour All-America Game in January and with just a week to decide his collegiate future after O’Brien’s departure, the quarterback had other offers on the table. When the family left Ottawa to drive to State College James Franklin had yet to be officially introduced as the program’s 16th head football coach. No quarterback coach or offensive coordinator were in place.

Franklin’s staff that joined him in State College knew O’Connor well from recruiting him at Vanderbilt. Quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne came with Franklin to Penn State and remembered being impressed with O’Connor when he camped in Nashville.

“I’ve known Michael actually for a long time,” Rahne said. “He’s a good kid, I’m glad he's here. I’m looking forward to coaching him. He’s got a lot of talent. When I’ve seen him in practices, he seems very coachable. When I had him in camp, he seemed very coachable. It makes it a lot easier.”

Of course there are a couple things keeping the four-star early enrolle from seeing the field right away. One of those is quarterback and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg who is coming off a season where he threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. With just a year separating the two players and with the expected addition of dual-threat quarterback commit Trace McSorley who previously committed to Franklin at Vanderbilt, O’Connor finds himself in a position unlike any he’s faced before.

He heads into spring ball as only the second scholarship quarterback on campus, a move that would seemingly give the pro-style quarterback the edge to secure the Lions’ No. 2 job.

Barring an injury to Hackenberg, O’Connor would seem poised for a redshirt season and it would give him ample time to learn the offense while working with Rahne and offensive coordinator John Donovan. It might mean taking a little longer to see the field than he’d like, but after the past few years O’Connor isn’t about to back away now.

“He’s a great quarterback. There’s no doubting that,” O’Connor said of Hackenberg. “He’s going to be the quarterback next year, you know it’s pretty much a given unless injury or whatever. But I’m still going to go in there, compete and work my tail off and as long as I work hard good things will happen. I know as long as I keep working hard then I’ll get to see the field one day. That’s all I can wish for.

“Playing quarterback at a Big Ten school at Penn State I mean, it’s crazy.”

(This story was made possible thanks to their generous support of our local business partners.)

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