Danny O’Brien’s career has been a roller coaster. His 2010 season remains one of the best ever by a Maryland freshman, as he was named ACC Rookie of the Week five times and ultimately won the conference’s Rookie of the Year award. The game didn’t get much easier from there, though; he only played one more season with the Terps.
He’s been busy since leaving College Park five years ago. O’Brien played one season for Wisconsin and finished his college career at Catawba before entering the pros. He eventually landed with the CFL expansion Ottawa Redblacks, and while he spent the last three seasons as a backup, he has a Grey Cup championship to show for it.
O’Brien signed with the Edmonton Eskimos last month, and he’s gearing up for the season at the moment. He’s still a second-stringer, but with 102 CFL passes to his name, he’s starting to figure things out.
Testudo Times caught up with O’Brien on Wednesday shortly after a windy afternoon practice.
Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:
TT: This is your first year in Edmonton after playing three years in Ottawa. What’s that adjustment been like?
O’Brien: I think the biggest thing is just a new locker room full of guys. There’s a few former staff members in Ottawa from a couple years back that are here now, the head coach and my position coach, and then we’ve got four or five guys that played in Ottawa with me over the last three years, some or all of them that are here now. So there’s some familiarity here, but anytime you walk into a new locker room, that’s a big adjustment, but it’s a great locker room. It’s a locker room where it’s you show up and put in the work, you’re gonna be respected and liked, so I’ve really enjoyed myself so far.
TT: In your three years in Ottawa, you guys went 2-16 your first year and then won the Grey Cup last year. How did that transformation take place?
O’Brien: It was a pretty wild journey. Obviously, Ottawa was an expansion team in 2014, my rookie year, so it was a brand-new group of guys, brand-new staff, first time Ottawa had had football in [nine years, since the Renegades left]. It had been a while. So that was kind of a tough year, but it made it that much sweeter this past year. To go 2-16 three years ago and then to win the whole thing was definitely a great end to the journey there, and I really enjoyed my three years there for sure.
TT: What was the process of moving on, knowing it was time to start somewhere else?
O’Brien: It just seemed like this was the best fit for me. Mike Reilly’s the guy here, obviously. He’s won a Grey Cup, had a great CFL career, probably a lock to be a future Hall of Famer, so any time you can learn from a guy like that, I feel like it’s a great situation for me. And the head coach, Jason Maas, was my offensive coordinator for two years in Ottawa and I really got along with him, so when the opportunity came to come here, it felt like the best fit for me this year, going forward in my career.
TT: You’re here because you played at Maryland, and we’re a Maryland blog. Your career was one of the more interesting ones, with a lot of records your first year and then a little up-and-down after that. What do you remember most from your time at Maryland?
O’Brien: Just the guys, I’d say. Obviously, my career was a little bit different, with transferring and everything like that, but the main memories you take away from that are the locker room, the huddles. I’m still extremely close with a lot of those guys. I have a bunch of them down every year—I have a camp back in North Carolina in my hometown every year, and a bunch of them come down and help work at the camp. We had our third annual one this offseason in April. So just the locker room. You hear older players say that all the time, but it’s so true. The games are a lot of fun, and competing, the wins and the losses are what they are, but the teammates and the friendships you build, in my opinion, are unique in a football locker room.
TT: Is anyone else from that team currently in the CFL?
O’Brien: Andre Monroe was in Saskatchewan, he works the camp with me ... he was gonna go to Toronto, but he had kinda semi-retired because of injury, I’m not sure if he’s still in the league or not. I’m gonna call him today, actually. [Update: Monroe has indeed left the league.]
And then Da’Rel Scott was there last year in Hamilton. LaQuan Williams, I think he’s in arena ball now, but I saw he was in Hamilton for a little bit. But I think that’s it.
TT: You were obviously the guy when the coaching change happened from [Ralph] Friedgen to [Randy] Edsall. As the quarterback when that happens, how big of an adjustment was that?
O’Brien: It was a pretty big adjustment, honestly. From the quarterback position, looking back on it, less so to do with the head coaching change—obviously, anytime you have a head coach change, the culture’s gonna change a little bit—but just from a scheme standpoint, I think the biggest adjustment was going from a pro-style, west coast offense that Friedgen and Frank led to kind of an up-tempo, no-huddle team, a lot of just “get the ball out quick” stuff. I think that was the biggest adjustment for me. I got along great with both head coaches, but scheme-wise I would say was the biggest takeaway.
TT: You graduated in three years, and decided to play out your eligibility elsewhere, and ended up going to two different places. With going to Wisconsin for 2012 and then Catawba for 2013, what went into those decisions to transfer?
O’Brien: It’s been a while; thinking back, I remember I was down to Penn State and Wisconsin, felt that Wisconsin was kind of the better fit at the time, and you live and you learn. I was young, picked Wisconsin, great group of guys—I still keep up with a good bit of those guys—and just felt like it was the right fit for me. Obviously, it didn’t really work out. I won the starting job, then I remember we kind of stalled out a little bit against Utah State and the coach made the decision to take me out, which is fine. But all in all, at the time, that just kind of felt like it was the best fit for me. You live and you learn, and you keep plugging away.
TT: You did the whole draft process in 2014, and your last year before that was at Catawba, which is D-II. So how did pro teams ... do you think they viewed you differently because you played D-II instead of finishing out your career at the same kind of level that you started it?
O’Brien: For sure. Any time you’ve got a guy who transfers twice, there’s gonna be a lot of questions that need to be answered, because it’s unique, it’s not the classic “go somewhere and play two to four years, tear it up, have one easy, clean body of work, talk to that coaching staff, keep it moving. So I think my draft process was a little unique, but again, you kinda live and you learn as you go, and shoot, [I] probably made some mistakes along the way with that, but I learned a lot, and playing D-II was a very unique and great experience, and in a weird way, I’m kind of glad I did it.
TT: Before you joined the CFL, you signed with a Professional Indoor Football League team for four days. So how do you just go tell someone that you signed with four days ago that you found something else?
O’Brien: I think the coaches there were pretty cool with it. ... Clayton Banner brought me down there, Columbus Lions, I’d just been released from Atlanta with the Falcons. I didn’t really know what to do next, and the Columbus Lions called me and said, ‘You can come down here and play until if and when someone were to pick you up, we’d be more than happy to let you go. So they were really cool about that.
I remember driving down to Columbus, we were gonna play on the Saturday, and they named me the starter after a couple practices, and I didn’t really know a whole lot about arena football, the rules, it’s 8-on-8, there’s a bunch of quirky rules, so I was a little nervous going into it. And then the day before the game, the Redblacks called me and offered me a three-year deal, and the coach was really great about it. That team has had a lot of success. I’ve kinda kept tabs on them, and they seem to be one of the better teams in that league, so they were really cool about letting me go, and the next day, I was on a flight to Ottawa.
TT: Obviously, the CFL is different from American football, let alone the indoor league, so how much of an adjustment was it for you, with the different dimensions of the field and things like that?
O’Brien: It was a pretty big one. The first few days, my head was pretty much spinning. It was 12-on-12, the guys can motion downhill—they call it a waggle—three downs, the field is longer, wider, the end zone’s 20 yards. So it was a big adjustment, but I was pretty lucky to have Henry Burriss, the starting quarterback that year and just won the Grey Cup for us, as the starter, so he kind of took me under his wing. He played 17, 18 years up here, he just retired at 41, so he was kind of my mentor on all things pro football and CFL football. So I was lucky to get under him and just take a lot of notes, but it was a big adjustment for sure.
TT: Was it a bigger adjustment learning the game itself or life in Canada?
O’Brien: A little bit of both. It kind of hits you fast. One day you’re in a hotel in Columbus, Georgia, and then you wake up the next day and you’re in Ottawa, Ontario, having never been to Canada, having never been in a CFL training camp, not really knowing all the rules too well. It kinda hits you all at once, but you just take one bite at a time, and slowly but surely I kinda acclimated myself. Luckily enough, I made enough plays for them to keep me on as the three that year, and ended up being the two for a little bit that year. It was a learn-on-the-fly deal for sure.
TT: When you’re not doing Canadian football stuff, you mentioned a couple times you have your camp. You started that two years ago; this year was your third. What inspired you to start a camp?
O’Brien: I kinda fell into it working with some of the current high school players at my old high school, doing some quarterback training. And then one thing led to another, and there was a few more quarterbacks from around the area, and then we expanded it to receivers, and this past offseason we said hey, let’s do DB’s as well. We have a really great wide receiver coach in Will Bradley, and then Will Billingsley played a few years in the NFL as a DB.
That first offseason, I said it would be pretty fun if we could do a one-day deal with all positions. And then it was also another way, like I said earlier, to get just a bunch of former teammates from Maryland, had some Catawba guys up, Wisconsin was a little bit far for some of the guys, and then some CFL teammates too. Selfishly for me, it was great because we got to talk football for a day, and then hang out with all my friends for a weekend at least once a year, some guys that you might not see all the time. So it was kind of an all-in-one deal, and it’s something that I’m gonna do every single year as long as I can.
TT: It sounds like it’s grown a lot in three years. What do you think is sort of the next step with that?
O’Brien: We were talking a little bit already about doing two camps in two locations, one in my hometown and one in either Raleigh or Charlotte, a little bit of a bigger city. But it’s been fun to watch it organically grow over the years, starting out as, ‘Hey, let’s just get my old friends together and put on a high-quality camp for the kids.’ Everyone that comes, not only are they tight with you, but they love to teach, love to give back and they really get into it, which has been really fun to see. And now, growing to where we had 140 kids last year and had to turn a bunch away. To try to grow this thing, it’s kinda turned into its own little deal.
So we’ll see. I don’t have a five-year vision for it yet, per se, but I know that we’re gonna grow the thing as long as it organically grows and make the adjustments as we see fit, but it’s definitely been a fun challenge to put together that stuff in the offseason. It definitely keeps you busy.
TT: Well, your offseason’s almost over. The first preseason game is [on Sunday]. With that season running through this fall, you’re in an interesting spot. You mentioned you’ve been a backup to Henry Burriss, Mike Reilly; as far as CFL goes, they’re superstars up there, and you’ve backed those guys up for a few years. ... How long do you think you can keep going with this and hopefully get a starter spot soon?
O’Brien: We’ll see. I’m kinda just taking it one year at a time. Not only was Henry really good, but he was extremely durable; I think two of the last three years, he was the only quarterback not to miss a game. And talking about learning from him, I really learned how he takes care of his body and gets through an 18-game season plus preseason and playoffs. But up here, a lot of those guys ... Henry, Mike Reilly, those guys backed up for two, three, four years before they got their chance.
It’s like anything, I guess. You just have to strike when your opportunity comes. If it comes fast, you have to make the most of it. I’ve just tried to stay ready week in and week out, continue to learn from these guys and take it one week at a time. I’m not sure exactly what’ll happen, whether I start here, somewhere else, or not at all. You just gotta be ready to go. I feel prepared, I think I have a pretty good understanding of the game up here, and I’m just trying to stay ready to roll.
TT: As a quarterback, it is kinda tough, because only one guy will be playing at a time, so for someone like you, how do you go into a game knowing that you are the backup plan, so be ready, but not quite?
O’Brien: Yeah, you’re always just one play away, so you just have to prepare like you are the starter. James Franklin, the guy that recruited me to Maryland, I remember that was one of the first things he ever told me when I came in my true freshman year: “Hey, you need to prepare every week, every game like you are the starting quarterback, because one day you will be.” And that’s something that stuck with me from when I was 18 years old all the way to now, is just walk into the building every day like you are the starter. That way, one day if and when you are, you won’t have to change anything that you do. So that’s something that stuck with me, and that’s how I’ve treated it ever since.
TT: How much thought have you given to what you’re gonna do whenever football has to end? You do the camp and you do some other things, so how much thought have you given to ‘what is the next step for you,’ or are you still just grinding and focusing on the present?
O’Brien: I’m gonna play as long as I can, especially if it’s CFL—if the NFL were to ever present itself, maybe that too, but as of now, CFL—and when I’m done, I’ll honestly probably end up coaching. We’ll see how this offseason training with the kids and this camp stuff progresses, but I know I’m gonna be around the game for a long time. I would probably, if I had to guess at this point, say I’d end up coaching because I think I would like that aspect of it as well, but we’ll see.
TT: We were talking earlier, you do still keep in touch with a lot of people at Maryland, you do still try and follow along and see how they do on Saturdays, things like that. Do you have any thoughts on the current team and where it’s going and the Cole Field House renovations or anything like that?
O’Brien: Man, [the changes to Cole] look pretty sweet. I think that’s a huge upgrade. Recruiting these days is so much about facilities and all that aesthetic stuff, which is just kinda the nature of the beast. But it looks really sweet; it’s obviously great for the campus.
In terms of the program, it seems like it’s doing great. Tyler Bowen, the O-Line coach now, was a former teammate and then GA at Maryland when I was there in 2009, 2019; he seems real fired up about it, and he’s a brilliant guy. I think he’s the youngest position coach in a power six conference, if I’m not mistaken, but a really bright guy. I kinda stay tuned into him, and he seems to be really optimistic about it, and recruiting seems to be going well, so I know a lot of the alumni are pretty fired up about the direction that it’s going. I’ll be following, and I’m pretty excited as well.
TT: You talk about the recruits, they do look for facilities, they look for things like that. What did you look for when you were being recruited?
O’Brien: I really hit it off with Coach Franklin. That’s a guy that I’m extremely tight with even to this day, so that was big for me. I was pretty sure as a high school senior, or junior at the time, that I wanted to do business, and the Smith School of Business was and still is highly esteemed, so that was big for me. I loved the Maryland area; I think from North Carolina, it was only five or six hours away from home, which at the time was a perfect distance, not too far away from home but far enough to where I could spread my own wings, so it was kinda the perfect fit. I committed pretty early, before my senior season, but Maryland just checked off all those boxes, and even though I transferred, I still was fortunate enough to get my degree from there, and that’s something that to this day I’m still proud of.
TT: If you were a recruit now, you’ve obviously seen they make a show out of their commitment. I don’t imagine you did that back in ‘08, ‘09, so how would you have announced it now?
O’Brien: Honestly, I’d probably still do it the same way. I just called Coach Franklin, told him I was coming, told my family, they were pretty excited. Like you said, it’s turned into kind of its own deal, announcing where you’re gonna go, but then again, I was like a three-star guy, so I’m not sure how many people would’ve tuned in if I had a big event, picked the hat or whatever they do these days, but I probably would’ve just done it the exact same way, and then just got ready to go.