- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2012

MADISON, Wis. — The Danny O’Brien Story was a tale so obvious merely 12 months ago, there almost wasn’t a need to craft a story.

He was a ferociously studious sophomore coming off an ACC rookie of the year season. Maryland had finally found a charismatic, face-of-the-program quarterback.

At the time, it looked like a perfect script. Six months later it was discarded in a decision tinged with inevitability, though O’Brien wouldn’t have seen his transfer to Wisconsin coming as he prepared for the Terrapins’ 2011 season opener.

“I would have said they were crazy,” O’Brien said recently. “Just with the expectations we had going into last year and everything, which we embraced the expectation, but certainly no one saw what happened last year coming.”

What happened was a woeful 2-10 season in coach Randy Edsall’s first season, and O’Brien’s departure as part of an exodus of players amplified scrutiny of the coach.

It wasn’t a fun stretch for O’Brien, either. The player who had tossed 22 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in 2010 struggled after a stirring season opener. He was benched for a game and split time with C.J. Brown in others.

By the time he left a blowout loss to Notre Dame at FedEx Field with a broken left arm, he had seven touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and a two-week head start on his offseason.

“It was tough,” O’Brien said. “You have to really bunker down and get with the people that are tightest with you. The thing about college football is if you struggle, it’s in front of the whole country. It wasn’t easy. I’d be lying if I said it was easy. But at the same time, I knew kind of the bigger picture of what was going on. I tried to stay positive with the guys because it was a rough time.”

O’Brien tugs at his shoulder pads, hands clasped just beneath his chin. The capacity for self-reflection remains vibrant. It’s all so familiar, especially for those who saw O’Brien in his finest moments at Maryland.

Except it’s something of an echo. The sport’s the same. The mannerisms are the same. But O’Brien’s story has taken an unmistakable turn.

“Certainly, I wouldn’t trade my time at Maryland, including last year, for anything,” O’Brien said. “I’m proud to graduate from there and keep up with all the guys. But being here has been a clean slate. It’s kind of weird being a freshman all over again, coming in and proving yourself. But I think it’s been good for me because this place is very competitive and brings out the best.”

Smelling the Roses?

On a cool Friday morning, O’Brien zipped through a crisp practice on the turf inside cavernous Camp Randall Stadium.

If the plethora of seat backs and cushions installed on bleachers more than a fortnight before the season isn’t enough of a hint (let’s just say Bucky’s Locker Room is doing good business), the long list of Wisconsin’s Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl appearances affixed across the top of the stadium cements a significant point.

O’Brien isn’t at Maryland anymore, and he’s traded up the college football food chain for the second act of his career.

“I was more highly recruited the second time than the first time. ” said O’Brien, who also visited Mississippi and Penn State. “I knew what to look for. I knew what I was looking for, so it wasn’t as much the facilities and gear. It was more football-oriented, team, the setup like that.”

If there’s something O’Brien was lauded for during his first two years at Maryland, it was picking things up quick.

So it comes as little surprise he devoured film during his first few weeks in Madison and worked out with the Badgers’ receivers. He also quickly met new teammates, taking nearly every opportunity to grow his understanding of his latest setting.

“He’s pretty good with names and faces,” guard Ryan Groy said. “I don’t think he needed to study. But I was trying to tell him what certain people like — this guy plays this music — and he’s like ‘I know.’ I’m like ‘You just got here.’”

Of course, this is Hired Gun v2.0 for Wisconsin. The Badgers, in need of an experienced quarterback last summer, signed former N.C. State star Russell Wilson. Like O’Brien, Wilson already earned an undergraduate degree and was eligible to play immediately.

Wilson arrived and led Wisconsin to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance. There are no guarantees O’Brien will do the same, but the Badgers know a recent arrival under center can provide a path to Pasadena.

“With what happened last year, it prepared us for it to happen again,” center Travis Frederick said. “It really was not an odd thing for someone to be coming in and competing for a job.”

O’Brien needed just two weeks to sew up the starting job. Before then, he adopted the approach of so many around him: Be quiet, go about his business and work hard. It’s a formula that’s worked for two decades at Wisconsin.

Yet there was a delicate balance. As a new guy, he didn’t want to overassert himself. But given his position, he couldn’t remain completely silent.

“At some point you have to be a quarterback,” O’Brien said two days before he was named the starter. “That’s something that I’ve done gradually more and more through the summer, establishing, ‘Here’s how I work, here’s what I do.’ Now, I’m in the huddle taking command because it’s my huddle, like Mark Sanchez said. Quarterbacks have to be a leader. You can’t be passive.”

Looking back, moving forward

O’Brien described his decision to come to Wisconsin as “very much so a football decision.” Landing at a school so close to the Twin Cities, where he was born and still has relatives, was a bonus.

Football was the impetus for leaving Maryland, too. It was clear by the last season’s second game O’Brien was struggling to fit into offensive coordinator Gary Crowton’s spread system.

O’Brien was recruited to play in the West Coast scheme of James Franklin, Maryland’s former offensive coordinator and Vanderbilt’s head coach. Crowton’s offense, with a reliance on quarterback runs, was a lousy fit for O’Brien or for Maryland. Crowton was fired after one season.

Yet as he left the Notre Dame game, O’Brien insists he did not know he was leaving his final game in a Terp uniform.

“There were some struggles during the season in terms of schematically what we thought we wanted to do,” O’Brien said. “Something I’ve said is until the season’s over I [was] not going to talk about that because I didn’t think that would be fair to the team. Once I got hurt, it got brought up. I wanted to kind of feel things out and know what was going to happen for the following year, kind of the plan.”

He took a business course in Australia to ensure he could graduate. He went home to discuss things with his family. And he came back to Maryland in January knowing it would be his final semester there.

Edsall agreed to give O’Brien his release to any school besides those in the ACC, as well as Maryland’s major college nonconference opponents this season (Connecticut, Temple and West Virginia) and Vanderbilt. After mounting pressure, Maryland granted O’Brien a full release more than a week later.

“A little bit of it got blown up a bit out of proportion, but part of it was confusing,” O’Brien said.

At the same time, the whole time we were just looking at schools. The Vanderbilt thing, I think got a lot of press and got talked about a lot. Certainly, that was a tough call telling coach Franklin at the end of the day I wasn’t going to visit there just because we’re pretty tight. It was tough. There’s some things that were frustrating, but I tried to take it in stride.”

His next strides will come in Madison, where O’Brien will make his Badgers debut Saturday against Northern Iowa. About a half-hour earlier, Maryland begins its season against William & Mary.

O’Brien has two sets of teammates, one former, one present, neither especially tied to the other beyond a single common element.

“I don’t really know much about his Maryland career, and he really hasn’t talked about it much, but I think he’s really, really happy to be here and really, really hungry to get that spot,” Groy said.

That’s O’Brien’s new story. It’s about a fresh start and the right fit.

A year removed from about as big a spotlight as Maryland can offer, he isn’t the most notable star in his own backfield (that would be Heisman finalist Montee Ball). He isn’t even perceived as the sure thing he was not too long ago but seemingly very far away from his present locale.

“I think it’s something that puts a chip on my shoulder that wasn’t there before,” O’Brien said. “When you’re coming off a season like that, people are going to doubt your abilities. I’m just kind of glad I have a chance here to reassert myself in a prostyle offense — I came to play college football in an offense like this.

“I really want to build off the skill sets I learned in 2010 and learn from the failures of last year, for sure. But you won’t see me running the zone read much this year.”