VANCOUVER — In those on-field moments, when he breaks contain and puts his feet to work, UBC Thunderbirds’ quarterback Michael O’Connor is a guy that can make you miss.
Yet he’s also showing himself to be the consummate team leader, because when you approach him with the hard questions off the field, he’s willing to take the hit head on.
“I definitely had a bad year and I want to bounce back,” the rising third-year slinger said Wednesday between classes. “It wasn’t very good, definitely not up to my capabilities and that is something I have made a focus. That is, to take things one play at a time, one drive at a time, and stay in the moment.”
From coast to coast, U Sports clearly has football teams of varying skill level and its western-most team is clearly one of its most talented. But the one constant is that every team is filled with young student-athletes, none of whom are above getting a little starstruck by magical, unexpected runs to national titles like the one the ‘Birds rode all the way to the 2015 Vanier Cup title.
Last season with a lot of that stardust still in their eyes and an inordinate amount of injuries to key personnel to boot, the Thunderbirds went a pedestrian 3-5 during the Canada West regular season.
Certainly, the microscope could pinpoint any number of stumbling points in all three phases which could have made them 5-3 or even 6-2.
Yet in the final analysis, they were a team that stood a touchdown away on a pair of second-half occasions in the Hardy Cup conference championship game, of advancing to the national semifinals.
And all of that is a carrot which has not only O’Connor’s attention, but that of the entire program.
Canada’s university sports world is now officially into its summer off-season.
Yet at UBC, season tickets for 2017-18 go on sale Thursday.
Football’s fall camp will be here before we know it.
And then just like that, the team which experienced instant success under head coach Blake Nill and followed it with bitter disappointment in round two, will be right back to the task at hand.
And the smart money here says that in Year 3, Thunderbirds football will be a much more worldly bunch.
“I think we learned not only how hard it is to win the title again, but how hard it is to stay on top and we learned that the hard way,” said O’Connor, who nonetheless passed for 2,598 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, the third-highest yardage total in the nation. “It very much humbled us as a team, so we are pleased with our work this off-season and we’re really looking forward to getting back on the field.”
And from the head coach’s perspective?
Nill will never issue any player a free pass, and O’Connor is certainly not exempt.
Yet he sees the positive steps being made by his pivot, each of which has the potential to manifest itself directly in the fortunes of the program.
“There is no question that Michael is a key to any success we are going to have,” begins Nill. “His cognitive ability allows us to be more innovative than some teams. But now, more and more, he has continued to mature and I think he is starting to realize that, as a guy with aspirations beyond college, a certain performance element is required. It’s maybe what separates him. Every decision he makes, from resting, to training, to working, to his nutrition, to school, every one will impact his ability to perform and he has disciplined himself around that.”
To wit, last season may well have been an unpleasant but very necessary evil in the development of UBC football within the Nill-O’Connor era.
“We’ve experienced both sides of it now and I think that is very important,” says O’Connor who will be working with a very familiar group of returning receivers (Trivel Pinto, Will Watson, Marshall Cook, David Mann, Trey Kellogg) and a bolstered backfield led by returning incumbent Ben Cunmings.
“You win games and you can lose games, there will always be ups and downs,” O’Connor continued. “To have experienced both extremes will only benefit us in the future and we are learning from it.”
UBC will open its 2017 season with a non-conference game August 23rd (6 p.m.) against the Alberta Golden Bears at Hillside Stadium in Kamloops.
Canada West play opens Sept 1 on the road against Regina before the home opener Sept. 9 at Thunderbird Stadium against Manitoba.
Aug. 23 — Alberta at UBC*
Sept. 1 — UBC at Regina
Sept. 9 — Manitoba at UBC
Sept. 16 — Saskatchewan at UBC
Sept. 23 — UBC at Alberta
Sept. 29 — Calgary at UBC
Oct. 7 — bye
Oct. 14 — UBC at Saskatchewan,
Oct. 21 — UBC at Manitoba
Oct. 28 — Regina at UBC
(*—non-conference game at Kamloops-Hillside Stadium)
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