O’Connor will join QB mix next year

Bill O’Brien’s had a decision to make between Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg to determine which would be Penn State’s starting quarterback when the Nittany Lions open the season on Saturday against Syracuse.

A former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL starter thinks things could get even tougher for O’Brien when Michael O’Connor enrolls in January. Of course, it would be the kind of problem a college football coach can only hope to have.

“Here’s a kid who is coming in, he’ll be well-prepared, and he’ll fit in well in that environment, especially now,” said Chris Weinke, who coaches the 6-foot-5, 225-pound O’Connor at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. “When you’re looking at a guy like this in a pro-style offense, he fits perfectly. He’s got all the tools.

“I felt when I first worked with him a summer ago I thought there was huge potential. I felt he had the ability to be very special. In my experience, over the course of the spring, he continued to get better.”

Judging by O’Connor’s performance in IMG’s first-ever game on Saturday, it doesn’t look like Weinke was just propping up his protege. O’Connor completed 10-of-18 passes for 162 yards and a couple of touchdowns in the Ascenders’ 38-0 pasting.

O’Connor connected with six different receivers.

At the age of 28 after spending several years playing minor league baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays organization, Weinke returned to football and won the Heisman Trophy in 1998 while leading Florida State to the national championship. Then he went on to play seven years in the NFL, setting a Carolina Panthers’ record with 423 yards passing in a game in 2001.

Since leaving the pros, Weinke’s spent time working with prospects and current NFL quarterbacks, like the Miami Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill. He thinks O’Connor could be a player who develops quickly.

“He’s a smart guy. He understands the game. He sees the field well,” Weinke said. “From a physical standpoint, six-five, 225 pounds, he can make all the throws. As good as he was, he’s gotten better with his accuracy and his ability to throw the ball with anticipation.

“What I’ve seen from him is a guy who is coachable, who picks up things very well and has improved dramatically just in terms of his mechanics, being able to get rid of the ball quick. He’s got great feet for a big guy and I think he will continue to get better and develop over the course of the next five or six months prior to his entry to Penn State in January.”

Weinke said he runs a similar offense at IMG – a fully-accredited high school of 800 students for athletes from all over the world – that O’Brien utilizes, and that should help O’Connor’s learning curve even more.

Judging by his comments after he committed to Penn State in late June, he’s counting on that.

“It was just a great fit for me,” O’Connor, 17, told the Ottawa Sun. “They’ve got a great business program, a pro-style offense, the coach is Bill O’Brien, and they only have two scholarship QBs so I can go in and compete right away.”

A consensus four-star prospect, O’Connor also had a list of offers that included Michigan State, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Rutgers, Syracuse, Missouri, South Florida, Southern Mississippi, Buffalo, Toledo and Akron.

“The recruiting process was a great learning experience for me, and in the end, I am confident in my decision to commit to Penn State,” O’Connor said to the Bradenton Herald. “Coach O’Brien continues to recruit a standout collection of athletes, and I am both honored and eager to become an immediate contributor in 2014.”

The sanctions facing Penn State didn’t deter O’Connor, either. Depending on whether or not he is redshirted next year, he might only miss out on being bowl eligible for one season. Penn State still will face scholarship restrictions for most of his time at University Park, unless the NCAA reverses itself.

“I think they have handled it very well,” O’Connor said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen. “They’re moving forward. They’re still recruiting great classes, and they’re still moving forward.”

O’Connor actually is from Toronto, Canada. He made a big name for himself on the camp circuit, then played last season at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“If you’re a good Canadian athlete, it’s sad, but you can’t stay in Canada and achieve your full potential,” O’Connor said to USA Today. “All the sports opportunities are down here in the states. That’s why you’re starting to see this more and more because there’s starting to be more talent produced in Canada, but they’re going south because that’s where the coaching and the exposure is.”

“I don’t think the adjustment to the U.S. game is a factor anymore. He’s been around here long enough. He understands it very well,” Weinke said. “The key is really consistency in staying sound in your mechanics and the, for him, to continue to get experience. There’s no substitute for experience. I think what we’ll see over the course of his senior year is him continue to get better.”

Weinke said that, along with consistency, mastering leadership and the intangibles would be the focus for O’Connor as he worked to meet his potential.

“From day one in spring practice until the last day in spring practice, I saw huge improvements,” Weinke said. “The last week of spring practice was his best, by far, mentally and physically.”