Going into the 12th-ranked Badgers’ season opener against Northern Iowa on Saturday, coach Bret Bielema just wants everyone to give O'Brien some leeway to establish himself without facing any unrealistic expectations.
“As far as the comparison, I get it, understand it,” Bielema said. “They both came from the ACC. Both transfers. But that’s the end of the similarities.”
After leaving North Carolina State, then quitting minor league baseball, Wilson arrived at Wisconsin last year all but guaranteed a starting job. A remarkable playmaker, Wilson led the Badgers to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth _ then parlayed his ability into a surprise starting job with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks as a rookie, beating out big-money free agent Matt Flynn.
“We don’t expect for him to play like Russell, because look at Russell now,” running back Montee Ball said of O'Brien. “I mean, he was a freak. We just want Danny to play how he has been playing this entire fall camp.”
O'Brien came to Wisconsin from Maryland, where he played very well as a redshirt freshman but struggled last season when the Terps switched to a spread-style offense. Like Wilson, he was eligible to play right away after transferring because he had graduated from his previous school.
Although O'Brien also was expected to take over as the starter when he arrived in Madison, he had to win a competition in camp to nail down the job.
“Obviously, Russell did a lot of great things here,” O'Brien said. “This is a brand new team, this is a clean slate. We’re 0-0. So we’re just going to go out there and do what we do, and I don’t think any of that other stuff is in any of our minds right now.”
“It’s all good,” O'Brien said. “He’s obviously playing some good football right now.”
Badgers fans will fondly remember the big plays Wilson made with his arm _ and his feet _ last season. But another critical part of Wilson’s success was his ability to avoid making big mistakes. Wilson threw for 3,175 yards with 33 touchdowns and only four interceptions last season.
O'Brien wants to make big plays too. But given the strength of a running game led by Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist last season, he knows his first job is to take care of the ball.
“I think especially here with the running game that we do have, if you can take care of the ball and get a lead, just with the ability to extend drives and have long drives, tire the defense out, I think that’s invaluable,” O'Brien said.
And while Wisconsin players and coaches are going out of their way to avoid direct comparisons between O'Brien and Wilson, Bielema is optimistic that O'Brien will be able to throw opposing defenses off balance with his mobility _ something that went a long way toward making the Badgers’ offense so dangerous with Wilson last year.