The only quarterback in the CFL’s fall scouting report doesn’t want to talk about the possibility of getting drafted to play professional football.
For Michael O’Connor, discussing his future is a distraction from his current goal — leading the University of B.C. Thunderbirds to another national championship.
“I’m just focused on the season,” said the Ottawa native. “I don’t want to let my teammates down. I feel like if I were to think beyond this season, I would be letting them down.”
O’Connor knows there’s talk that he could get picked to play either in the CFL or even the NFL. He knows he was ranked 20th overall in the CFL’s fall scouting report. He knows how rare Canadian quarterbacks are.
He just isn’t ready to think about what could happen when he’s done playing university football.
“I’m honest when I say I really haven’t thought about it,” said the 22 year old. “I just want to be all-in with my team and try to do everything and try to get this team back to where we were a couple of years ago.”
O’Connor has already had a taste of national glory, getting to the Vanier Cup in 2015, his first year with the team.
Expectations for the T-Birds were low that year, said UBC’s head coach Blake Nill.
It was Nill’s first season with the team, too, and he’d previously racked up a series of lopsided victories over UBC during his nine years coaching at the University of Calgary. He came to Vancouver wanting to recruit big talent, but didn’t have high hopes for winning immediately.
“I was mentally prepared just to play young athletes and try to turn the culture around,” he said.
When the coach heard O’Connor was looking to transfer from Pennsylvania State University, Nill reached out. He didn’t think the star athlete would be interested in signing because of interest from U.S. schools, but he wanted to show that UBC was “going to go after the best.”
O’Connor visited the picturesque Vancouver campus on a February weekend where the temperature reached 20 C and found an opportunity to build something special.
“Everything was sort of starting fresh, so I thought it would be pretty neat to be part of that process and kind of change the culture here,” he said.
Despite low expectations, the T-Birds beat Montreal 26-23 to capture the national championship. O’Connor was named MVP after passing for 389 yards and a touchdown.
Since then, he’s continued to grow both as a player and as a leader, Nill said.
He’s also finished a degree at UBC’s competitive Sauder School of Business and the coach called O’Connor “a deep thinker, a very composed young man.”
In 2017, O’Connor threw for 2,308 yards with a 67.5 per cent pass completion rate and 14 touchdowns. And he’s started off 2018 strong, putting up 515 yards in UBC’s first two games.
During Friday night’s match in Calgary, the quarterback struggled to find an open receiver, but spotted a path to the endzone. O’Connor sprinted the 25 yards himself, scoring B.C.’s only touchdown of the night. The T-Birds lost 57-7.
Now in his fourth year with UBC, O’Connor is eligible to play into 2019, but Nill isn’t expecting him to.
“We’re preparing for life without Mike O’Connor right now,” the coach said. ”Of course, if we got him back, that would be incredible.”
He thinks O’Connor will be drafted into the pros, but whether he goes to an NFL or CFL team remains unclear.
Playing in Canada would come with unique pressures, given the relative rarity of Canadian quarterbacks, Nill said.
“I believe it’s something the CFL needs to increase fan interest,” he said. “And I think the league in general is looking at a few guys, and especially Mike O’Connor, as an opportunity. And they’re going to do everything they can to secure his services for the good of the entire league.”
The young man can “for sure” handle the pressure, he added.
Being a role model for young athletes is a position O’Connor said he would welcome.
“I’d love to be a hope for other Canadian quarterbacks that are in high school right now or even younger, to show them that it’s possible for them to play at the next level, too. That it’s not just for the other position groups,” he said.
Right now, though, his focus is on the rest of his U Sports career, including the T-Birds’ matchup against the University of Regina Rams on Friday.
“In a sense, I just see myself as a quarterback like any other quarterback,” he said. “And I think that my play will speak for itself. If I’m good enough, I’ll play at the next level and if not, I won’t.”
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press