By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
As Nebraska prepares for its first spring football practice on Saturday, redshirt freshman quarterback Patrick O’Brien is thankful he’s not sophomore quarterback Patrick O’Brien.
On more than one occasion last season, O’Brien wondered if coaches may be forced to veer from their original plan – sit O’Brien out of competition and save a season of eligibility as a redshirt.
It’s a plan O’Brien, in his first collegiate season, had formed with offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf when the two sat down in August and discussed options.
“I was completely OK with it,” O’Brien said, “but there were a few scares during the season, definitely, when Tommy went down and then Ryker, he got hurt here and there. There were a lot of chances where I could’ve gone into the game, but they tried to save me the best they could, and they did a good job of it.”
Tommy Armstrong Jr. left Nebraska’s Nov. 5 game at Ohio State with a head injury and pulled his hamstring the following week against Minnesota, an injury that forced him to sit two games, including the bowl game.
Ryker Fyfe, a former walk-on, replaced Armstrong and started against Maryland but suffered a wrist injury, so he missed the season finale at Iowa, and he was less than 100 percent in starting the Music City Bowl against Tennessee.
All the while, O’Brien was appreciative he didn’t waste a season of season of eligibility in late November.
“Toward the end of the season, they definitely didn’t want me to burn my redshirt with one or two games left in the season,” O’Brien said. “If it happened earlier, they said I would’ve burned it, but since it was so late when Tommy went down, they thought it would be best to save it.”
Now the 6-foot-4, 230-pound O’Brien, from San Juan Capistrano, California, enters his redshirt freshman season involved in arguably Nebraska’s deepest and most challenging quarterback competition since an unknown Californian by the name of Taylor Martinez emerged prior to the 2010 season.
Nebraska has had two regular starting quarterbacks since then, and the next quarterback era will, at least initially, depend on how well O’Brien, junior transfer Tanner Lee and true freshman Tristan Gebbia perform throughout 15 spring practices, and again in fall camp.
Who emerges will depend on a variety of factors, none bigger than efficiency, Langsdorf said.
“We’ll be looking for a guy who can move the ball, who can run the offense, can get us in the right look, the right play, takes care of the ball,” Langsdorf said. “We can’t have a guy that’s going to go out there and turn the ball over. He’s going to hurt the team.”
In the passing game, Langsdorf is looking for, most of all, an accurate thrower.
“That’s going to be an important part of being efficient – finding completions, not throwing interceptions, getting us in the right run play and the correct protections,” he said. “We’re looking for a guy who can move the ball and take care of the ball. That will be a big thing for this group going into spring.”
O'Brien possesses good size and outstanding arm strength. One of the nation’s Top 10 quarterback recruits in 2016, according to 247Sports and Rivals.com, O’Brien joined Nebraska as a mid-year transfer out of high school and participated in last year’s spring practices, a path Gebbia is also following.
“Just being here in the offense for a year, I just invest myself in that,” O’Brien said. “I kind of know the ins and outs of that. That’s definitely going to help me be better on the field, and I know where I need to go with the ball for passing, or checks, all that stuff. I also know what to expect from practices and all the looks you’re going to get from defenses. It just all comes together for me.”
Last season, O’Brien spent the first part of practices directing the scout team in the indoor Hawks Championship Center before trotting up to Memorial Stadium, where’d he spend time watching the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses.
“A lot of times we were running the offense the other team would run, and then I got a good taste of what we ran,” O’Brien said. “It was good just to kind of see multiple offenses.”
O’Brien threw for 2,895 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at San Juan Hill High School while completing an impressive 74.3 percent of his attempts. O’Brien also ran for 626 yards on 110 carries, with eight rushing touchdowns.
Make no mistake, though, O’Brien is at Nebraska because of his strong, accurate arm.
“It’s a pro-style offense and I’m a pro-style quarterback,” O’Brien said. “I feel like I can make any throw on the field. I feel like I have good footwork, and that’s all Coach Langs preaches.
“I feel like I could be a really good fit for (this offense). It’s a big reason why I came here, too. It’s going to be a stepping stone to go to the NFL. I mean, obviously, that’s the dream, so it’s only going to prepare me for that and it’s just going to make me a better quarterback.”
Here’s something else that will prepare O’Brien: Competition. Through past quarterback battles, he understands the importance of remaining confident in himself.
“I’ve been talking with my parents and my high school coach back home and everything, and they’ve just been guiding me and keeping my mind right, obviously,” O’Brien said. “I just got to control what I can control, and every single day just try to get better. If they see that I’m the best quarterback at the end of the day, that’s what it will be, but I’m always going to do what’s best for the team.”
O’Brien recalls a quarterback battle with a senior while he was an underclassman in high school.
“To battle against somebody who’s older is always more difficult,” O’Brien said, “but I still feel I’m confident in myself and my ability, so I can get the job done.”
Here, he’ll battle with Lee, a transfer from Tulane who has playing experience and is older.
“Tanner’s a great quarterback. He has a lot of experience, started a good amount of games at Tulane. I have the utmost respect for him, because he can do everything on the field, also. He’s a great guy, a great competitor. I feel like he’s a great quarterback.
“And then Triston, he’s kind of where I’m from. We knew each other when we were going through the ranks and then I graduated, and then he decided to come here. He’s a really good quarterback, has a very strong arm. Since he’s been here already, he’s got a very good aspect of the offense. I’m very impressed with him, too.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.