Huntingdon cheering on O’Korn

Penn State and Pitt have both completed their college football seasons, but in Huntingdon plenty of people are still looking forward to a bowl game.

No, it isn’t the Bowl Championship Series title game between Auburn and Florida State. It is the BBVA Compass Bowl on ESPN this Saturday at 1 p.m. featuring Houston and Vanderbilt.

Houston quarterback John O’Korn is a Huntingdon native and lived in the town until 2011.

“A lot of people in Huntingdon follow him,” said Jim Zauzig, who coached O’Korn when he played for the Bearcats in 2010. “When Houston is on TV, if I’m at the Elks, Walmart or wherever, people will come up to me and say ‘hey, Houston is on ESPN tonight’ because people know he’s there and are very proud of what he’s done.”

O’Korn has done plenty so far despite being a true freshman.

The 6-foot-4 quarterback began the season as a backup to Cougars’ starter David Piland, but Piland suffered a concussion in just the second game of the year. In October, Piland, who had suffered multiple concussions throughout his career, decided to retire as an active player.

That made O’Korn, who had already thrown for three touchdowns in his collegiate debut against Southern in relief of Piland, the starting quarterback.

Piland has stayed with the team and helped mentor O’Korn.

“David has been a great help to me throughout the season as far as helping me with my reads and always being there,” O’Korn said. “Whenever I come to the sidelines, he’s there to tell me what I did right and what I did wrong and what to expect moving forward.”

O’Korn is 239-of-399 for 2,889 yards and has 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in 12 games this season. He’s helped Houston to an 8-4 record and was recently named the American Athletic Conference’s Rookie of the Year.

“It was a great honor and definitely a blessing,” O’Korn said. “That just goes to show I have the teammates and coaches that have faith in me to allow me to make big plays and help me look good after a receiver breaks a long run after a short pass. It’s a great honor, but it just goes to show the great players I have around me.”

This is Houston’s first year playing in the AAC, the conference that was formerly known as the Big East, and the conference affiliation has led to plenty of the Cougars’ games being nationally televised.

“It’s been really cool [being on TV],” O’Korn said. “I’ve had a lot of older friends and classmates reach out to me and encourage me and tell me that they’ve been watching.

“It’s been great knowing that everyone back in my hometown has been keeping up with me. It means a lot.”

O’Korn’s decision to leave Huntingdon was not an easy one.

As a high school freshman, he battled injuries and played only half of the year. He began his sophomore year with an infection in his foot and missed the first week of the season. By the end of the year, he’d started five games, thrown for more than 1,000 yards and tossed 10 touchdown passes.

“He had a very strong arm for a sophomore, and his arm itself was indicative that we had someone special here,” Zauzig said. “He took 80 percent of the snaps that year, and he had a will to win and a drive that would match anyone.

“He set his own standards, and he had a level he wanted to reach and high goals. You could just sense that.”

Following Huntingdon’s playoff loss to Forest Hills in 2010, O’Korn’s mother, Paula, moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to be with her parents as they battled health problems.

A short time later, the opportunity to transfer to St. Thomas Aquinas, a high school football power in Florida, was presented to O’Korn. After thinking it over, O’Korn departed for Florida in December.

“The move was a big risk for John,” Gary O’Korn, his father and former Huntingdon assistant football coach, said. “He was going into a new environment and the speed of the game was vastly different.”

O’Korn had to share time with senior starter Max Lescano when he arrived at Aquinas and took the time to get acclimated to the change.

“It was tough moving as a sophomore in high school and not really knowing what to expect,” O’Korn said. “I had a lot of high hopes, and in the end it paid off. I couldn’t be happier with the decisions I’ve made, even though it was a tough adjustment moving so far at such a young age.”

As the full-time starter his senior year, O’Korn helped Aquinas win the 7-A Florida state title by throwing for 2,552 yards, 22 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He was named the championship game’s MVP after throwing for 339 yards and scoring four touchdowns.

“We had 15 Division I players in my graduating class in Florida, so every day was an opportunity to get better,” O’Korn said. “I played against some of the best kids in the country in practice and with our school being 7-A, we played against some of the biggest programs down there and that helped my progression as a quarterback.”

That development led to plenty of Division I collegiate offers.

“He was first contacted in February of 2012 by South Florida, Central Florida and North Carolina,” Gary O’Korn said. “It was totally his decision, but we had a talk prior to his recruitment about how important commitment was. When [Houston head coach Tony Levine] got directly involved in John’s recruitment, that impressed him.

“He visited Houston and saw the improvement they’ve made to the campus and that was the deciding factor.”

The move from Florida to Houston wasn’t as tough on O’Korn as it may have been for other kids fresh out of high school.

“[Moving before] made the transition from Florida to Houston much easier on me,” O’Korn said. “Knowing I was probably going to see some time as a true freshman, it was important to not get caught up on the social part of moving across the country, leaving family and fitting in. I had been through that before, so it definitely helped me adjust to a new city.”

One of O’Korn’s biggest adjustments since moving from Huntingdon, according to Zauzig, has been how he’s handled adversity. The former Bearcats’ coach said O’Korn would often be upset with himself and not handle throwing an interception well in high school.

“I didn’t always play quarterback my whole life and as a sophomore in high school, I was still really young and learning the position,” O’Korn said. “As I got older and played the position, I picked up a lot of things up from other quarterbacks and coaches at Florida and Houston.

“I learned to have a short memory whether it is a good play or a bad play. You can’t get too high or too low, and I’ve been able to maintain a level head and keep chugging on.”

Though Houston is 8-4, O’Korn said close losses to ranked opponents like Central Florida and Louisville have left their mark on him.

“This year, we had a chance [to go undefeated] but we lost a lot of close games that we’re kicking ourselves in the foot over,” O’Korn said. “Every single game that we lost, we lost by a touchdown or less. They were all very winnable.

“We had the ball with a chance to tie it or win it and didn’t come through. I know I learned a lot from those games, and those things will carry me through the rest of my career.”

Despite it being awhile since O’Korn has taken a snap in Huntingdon, there will still be plenty of local interest in his career as it plays out over the next three years.

“The feedback from people has been very positive,” said Gary O’Korn, who now along with his wife, lives back in Huntingdon. “People in Huntingdon have been watching the games every week, and they’ve been nothing but supportive.”