LINCOLN — Patrick O'Brien is on a roll. You may not find a high school football player who's had a better calendar year in the recruiting world.
O'Brien arrived at Nebraska late last week and begins classes this week. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound quarterback from San Juan Capistrano (California) Hills High School started as a varsity signal-caller for just two years. He has gone from well off any program's radar — not a single offer from a college in California and no offers at all 10 months ago — to one of the top-rated quarterbacks in the 2016 class.
He might be No. 1 in the state of California. Those guys almost never get away.
This one did. And the story of how that happened — and life events that helped shape O'Brien's fortitude — well, we'll keep that for later this week. Stay tuned.
For a moment, on the front end, here's a reminder to be patient.
Amid all the hype surrounding O'Brien's skills — a 70-yard arm, clean footwork, decent mobility and, for a high school kid, a good grasp of pro-style schemes — and his early arrival on campus, patience may be hard.
"I have a full grasp of how big it is, me coming in. I completely understand. It comes with the territory, the No. 1 fan base in the country. I'm very excited."
"I have a full grasp of how big it is, me coming in," O'Brien said. "I completely understand. It comes with the territory, the No. 1 fan base in the country. I'm very excited."
So are fans. I hear from them. They've seen his Hudl highlight film.
O'Brien might be the purest passing talent Nebraska's had in the program since Zac Taylor. O'Brien is tall enough, too, to see over defenses. He's big enough to absorb a few shots from defenders. He's got great athletes for parents — his mom played on the Swedish national volleyball team and his dad was a college swimmer who later competed in lifeguard competitions. O'Brien is also willing to put in the work.
"It was 24/7 football right after his senior season ended," said personal quarterbacks coach Steve Calhoun.
Said his dad, Paul O'Brien: "He loves to watch film all the time."
Plus, he's ready to live up to expectations.
"It lights a fire," Patrick O'Brien said. "It motivates you to really prove to fans I can be what they want me to be — be as good as they think I can be — and not let them down."
The quarterback is a difference maker at every level of the sport. The team that doesn't have the elite quarterback had better hope all the other pieces are in place. If not, you see the drop Nebraska experienced from 2001 (playing for a national title) to 2002 (finishing 7-7) when Eric Crouch graduated.
So there's reason for excitement. Hope. But more reason to wait — and watch.
For it is very, very hard for true freshmen quarterbacks to make a big splash as starters. And the few who do usually don't have to beat out a three-year starter like Tommy Armstrong.
Five true freshmen this season attempted more than 240 passes for Power Five teams — UCLA's Josh Rosen, Washington's Jake Browning, Louisville's Lamar Jackson, Missouri's Drew Lock and Kansas' Ryan Willis — with BYU's Tanner Mangum and Boise State's Brett Rypien doing the same for their highly respected programs.
But none of those seven had to stare down a three-year starter. The closest was probably Lock, who took the job from starter Maty Mauk after Mauk was suspended from the program. Mangum took over once BYU starter Taysom Hill got hurt against Nebraska, but that's not the same as beating out Hill.
A lot of those guys had strong seasons; they make the case for a true freshman starting.
Then again, it's not likely any of those teams will finish the season in the Top 25, either. And not one of those seven won 10 games this season.
When Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf — who scouted O'Brien and offered him — was at Oregon State, he was in a similar situation with true freshman Sean Mannion. Like O'Brien, Mannion wasn't as heavily recruited as some. And like O'Brien, Mannion was facing an incumbent starter in Ryan Katz when he arrived in Corvallis.
Mannion didn't win the job in fall camp; Katz started the first half of the first game against Sacramento State. Mannion took over in the second half. Katz later transferred. Mannion was special.
Still, the Beavers finished 3-9. Mannion completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 3,328 yards, but he also threw 18 interceptions.
"There hasn't been a ton of really good stories about true freshmen playing if you look across the country," Langsdorf said. "Mannion did do that for us — so it can be done — but that wasn't his best year. I think it takes time. I think it's a big transition."
Which is why Armstrong making a big jump from Year One or Year Two in NU's new offense would be a best-case scenario.
"Ideally, our guys who are on the team would continue to make improvements and play at a high level and give Patrick a chance to learn and grow in the system, to get some experience — but not force him into anything too early," Langsdorf said. "That's ideal."
At the same time, Langsdorf won't put limits on O'Brien's goals.
"If he comes in, he learns very quickly and he's the best guy, we would play him," Langsdorf said. "We would play him. We would do that for sure. But we don't want to force anything. We want to make sure his process isn't rushed or overloaded.
Having this extra spring will help him — it'll show us where he's at and have a chance, as we're going forward, to make a decision if he's going to be ready or not."
O'Brien knows there's a big hill to climb just to get to the No. 2 quarterback spot. As for No. 1?
"Tommy's started for three years, so I've got my work cut for me," O'Brien said. "He's absolutely a great player and I have the utmost respect."
As he should. As any backup quarterback should. Starters learn fast: It's not easy, and the fans aren't always so rosy.
At least O'Brien doesn't come into school naive about it, and he also said he won't try to be somebody he's not. This is, in many ways, Armstrong's team. He's the captain. He's the guy who was hot and cold for most of the season but finished rather hot in the Foster Farms Bowl.
O'Brien's the new guy. New guys are always beloved by the fans, but they have to earn respect in the locker room.
"I feel like I just have to do 'me,' " O'Brien said. "I don't need to talk a lot. I don't need to say anything more than I need to. I feel like I need to go in every single day and take care of my own business."
Here's to competition.