It’s safe to say the road Danny O’Brien has taken to his fourth year of eligibility resembles a path less traveled, or maybe never traveled.
From transfer newbie to starting quarterback to 2-minute drill specialist to sideline signal caller, the parade of pit stops that constructed O’Brien’s first year as a Badger last season was unprecedented.
And that doesn’t even include his career at Maryland, highlighted by winning the ACC Rookie of the Year award in 2010. As his head coach and offensive coordinator departed, a quarterback competition was imminent at Maryland and O’Brien’s magical freshman season became an afterthought.
But at Wisconsin, whether it was the new offensive coordinator, an underachieving offensive line or a team that was getting used to a third starting quarterback, the Badgers had a few “bumps in the road,” according to senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis.
By the time Wisconsin crossed those bumps in the road, and unconventionally advanced to a third straight Rose Bowl, O’Brien was bumped to the sidelines and a third-string position on the depth chart.
“It was tough, for sure … I’ve never been benched my entire life, so it was something new to me,” O’Brien said. “But I think I earned the respect of a lot of my teammates through the way I handled it.”
Regardless of earning the respect of his teammates, O’Brien had lost his hold over the lead spot under center, which was one of his main reasons for transferring. In leaving Maryland, he was looking for a fresh start. After only one extremely tumultuous, yet somewhat successful season at Wisconsin, he already needed another one.
Rest assured, when Bret Bielema departed for Arkansas, O’Brien was by no means dejected. Facing his last year of eligibility, O’Brien welcomed the idea of a new coaching staff with open arms, but on one condition.
“The only thing I asked coach [Gary] Andersen when we sat down and talked was, ‘Am I going to get a shot?’” O’Brien said. “He said yes, so that was all I needed to hear.”
He’ll be battling the likes of two starters from last season, a promising and once-highly touted redshirt freshman and eventually, a transfer just like himself. Just where O’Brien will fit into the mix remains to be seen, and it will probably stay that way for a while.
Andersen hasn’t been shy about telling others his plans (or lack thereof) for the quarterback position throughout spring practice. The new head coach has adamantly stated that the starting quarterback position would not be decided until camp, later this summer.
His offensive coordinator, Andy Ludwig, reiterated that point after practice Monday, noting that within the early stages of their 15 spring practices, it’s far too soon to elect the leader of the offense, especially when there are plenty of qualified options.
In his short time as coordinator, however, Ludwig has been impressed with O’Brien in other ways than just orchestrating an offense.
“[His work ethic] just jumps out at me,” Ludwig said. “He’s a football junkie, works very hard at studying the game and is always around the office. It’s very impressive.”
It was a similar response to what Abbrederis thought could help O’Brien eventually win the job.
“Just hard work,” the senior wide receiver said. “If you put something in front of you, you just have to work harder than the next guy and things just have to fall into place.”
It was Abbrederis who made life easy for O’Brien, at least at the beginning of his Wisconsin career.
In their first game together, O’Brien completed 19 passes against Northern Iowa, six of them finding the sure hands of Abbrederis. Each of his two passing touchdowns went to Abbrederis as the duo hooked up for a score in each half, vaulting the Badgers to 26 points, of which they needed every one.
When Abbrederis left, O’Brien’s second start with an injury, the Badgers’ offense was stunted even further than it already had been. One week later, O’Brien was eventually yanked from his starting role with Abbrederis remaining on the sidelines and plenty to be desired from the early season connection.
While O’Brien attempts to make his way through the five-pronged predicament at quarterback, he’ll likely look the way of Abbrederis again, Wisconsin’s No. 1 wide receiver.
More than anything, however, he’ll look to himself and his past experiences on that road less traveled as he tries to become Wisconsin’s starting quarterback.
“I’m glad that I’ve experienced [being benched] because I’m a lot stronger going into this year,” O’Brien said. “It’s my third QB battle in four years, so I’m used to this stuff.”