O’Connell’s improbable journey from walk-on to starter

Go ahead. Ask Bill McNamara about the time in September 2016 when he took his Stevenson High team to Michigan to play a powerhouse Muskegon High squad with a kid named Aidan O’Connell at quarterback. The former head coach of Stevenson High likes to tell the story.

“Aidan was lights out that game,” said McNamra. “We had to travel about four hours. First time in school history we played out of state. They were ranked in Top 10. They had six to eight D-I players.”

Stevenson won a 38-35 thriller, with O’Connell hitting 36-of-51 passes for 381 yards with four touchdowns. O’Connell’s top target that day was current Iowa wideout Henry Marchese, who made 13 receptions.

“Incredible numbers,” said McNamara. “Great game.”

O’Connell was the talk of Stevenson High—located in the Chicago suburbs—back then. Now, three years later, he has Stevenson in Lincolnshire, Ill., buzzing again. But this time, it’s as the starting quarterback for Purdue, which will play at Northwestern (1-7 overall; 0-6 Big Ten) on Saturday in what essentially will be a home game for O’Connell in his first ever start.

Walk-on quarterbacks have played at Purdue–with Aaron Banks being the most recent in 2015 before O’Connell’s recent appearances. But it’s believed a walk-on quarterback never has started. O’Connell will be the first.

“We are all excited,” said McNamara, who still teaches and coaches at Stevenson. “Everyone at the school is talking about it.”

O’Connell finds himself in these circumstances after a string of injuries to Boilermaker quarterbacks. First, starter Elijah Sindelar broke his left clavicle on September 28 vs. Minnesota. Sophomore Nick Sipe retired from football last month due to back issues, knocking another signal-caller from the depth chart. Then, last week vs. Nebraska, No. 2 man Jack Plummer broke his right ankle.

That has thrust O’Connell into the No. 1 spot. He played vs. Illinois two weeks ago, connecting on 8-of-14 passes for 67 yards with a touchdown in his Purdue debut as he came in twice for an ineffective Plummer on a rain-soaked day.

O’Connell played again last week, taking over vs. the Cornhuskers after Plummer went down and leading the Boilermakers to the game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes of a 31-27 victory that kept Purdue’s bowl hopes alive. O’Connell hit 6-of-7 passes for 62 yards, hitting his last six passes—all on the final drive. The Boilermakers (3-6 overall; 2-4 Big Ten) must win-out to reach bowl eligibility.

“I feel super sorry for Jack,” said O’Connell after the Nebraska victory. “This kid worked so hard. He’s one of my best friends. (I) pray for Jack. It’s my job to do what I have to do.

“Starter, backup, I try to prepare myself like I am the one and I’m gonna play. Who knows? I’m gonna try to be a leader as best I can and hopefully win a few more games this season.”

Not bad for a guy who had orally committed to Division III Wheaton College before getting the chance to walk-on at Purdue by Jeff Brohm, who at the time was beginning his first season in West Lafayette.

Brohm was tipped off about O’Connell by Jeff Christensen, a Chicago-based private quarterbacks and receivers coach who operates Throw It Deep. Christensen played at Eastern Illinois and in the NFL. He still works with O’Connell. Christensen has been working with quarterbacks for years. Among his students: Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins. O’Connell began working with Christensen when he was 13.

“Skinny kid,” said Christensen, describing his first meeting with O’Connell. “Then, at age 15, the ball started to come out of his hand differently. Very coachable. Applied the teaching. He’s a hard worker, has a good soul, comes from a tremendous family. You will want him in your locker room.

“Garoppolo may be quicker on his feet than O’Connell and a better athlete. And his release may be a little quicker. But as far as throwing the ball from A to B, Aidan is as good as Jimmy Garoppolo.”

Back when O’Connell was at Stevenson High, Christensen had a special meeting with him and his parents, asking O’Connell what he wanted to do with his life: O’Connell said he wanted to be a head coach at a major university.

“I told him if I were you, I’d walk on to a big program where I know the head coach is fair, where I can put on 35, 40 pounds and I would learn the game from a great coach at a high level and would be around the environment you want to coach in for two years. At the end of two years, if you don’t like it, you can always come back and start at Wheaton. Based on his dream, that was the path I thought he should take.”

Christensen and Brohm first developed a relationship when Brohm was the quarterbacks coach at Illinois (2010-11). They shared mutual philosophies. That helped Christensen earn Brohm’s trust.

“When I was driving to the NFL Combine (in the winter of 2017), I stopped by to see Jeff,” said Christensen. “I told him about Aidan. I told Jeff to trust me. The kid can play.

“I told him that when the ball leaves his fingertips, he’s as good as Jimmy Garoppolo. He said: ‘You’re serious? And I said: ‘I’m dead serious.’ ”

Christensen also told Brohm that O’Connell has “it,” that special intangible good players possess. Brohm listened and took O’Connell as a preferred walk-on.

“We brought him down and showed him around and, you know, invited him to walk-on and I think he may have had a few other small opportunities, maybe, but I’m not for sure, I’m really not,” said Brohm earlier this week. “He may not have. I know — I know he took us up on the offer, and we had to convince him a little bit, but he took us up on the offer.

“Ever since, he just kind of came down and really been a great teammate that just kind of works hard and puts in the time and all the players love him. He’s got a great personality. Super, super person.”

The 6-3, 210-pound O’Connell has a strong arm, but lacks dynamic athletic ability.

“He’s a guy that I think can execute the offense,” said Brohm. “You know, the plays there, I think he’ll stand there and try to make the throw and sit in that pocket and do the best job that he can. I think he is an accurate passer that has good fundamental form — fundamentals, and technique and form, and has worked hard to perfect his throwing mechanics and craft.

“We’ve got to play to his strengths and help him get into rhythm and get completions. I think extending the play and getting yards with his feet is not his strength, but you know what, he still has to be able to do it at times.”

Brent Becker, the current head coach at Stevenson who was on staff as an assistant when O’Connell was the quarterback in 2016, isn’t surprised by any of this.

“He’s just a student of the game,” said Becker, who coached O’Connell’s two older brothers at Stevenson. One older brother Patrick is a star defensive lineman at Wheaton. And O’Connell has a younger brother who’s currently a sophomore quarterback at Stevenson. “He is so smart and composed. He knows exactly what’s gonna happen in the pocket.”

Becker recalled a game when O’Connell was playing JV as a junior back in 2015.

“He was calling plays all game,” said Becker. “He got into the fourth quarter and we had a chance to win. He called the game-winning play. He called a motion across. He knew that it would move the safety and that we could get a receiver up the seam. Sure enough, exactly the way it played out in his head is what happened. He hit the kid up the seam for a touchdown.”

O’Connell was toiling on the JV as a junior because there was a good senior signal-caller ahead of him named Jack Sorenson, who is currently a star wideout at Miami (Ohio).

“Jack was a triple-threat player,” said McNamara. “Aidan was clearly a better passer. As the season went on, Aidan played a lot more varsity as a junior. He was just a victim of circumstance.”

And a lack of extensive playing time may be a reason why O’Connell flew under the recruiting radar despite setting school records for passing yards (2,741) and touchdown passes (26) in his lone year as the starter at Stevenson where he also was a star basketball player. He played alongside current Indiana Hoosier Justin Smith. O’Connell was a Class 8A Illinois High School Football Coaches Association all-state selection in 2016. In addition to Purdue, O’Connell also was talked to Illinois about being a preferred walk-on.

“His options were pretty limited because he was only a senior starter,” said McNamara. “We always knew he was a Division I-caliber quarterback. It was just a matter of finding a fit and an opportunity. And we were very blessed that Coach Brohm gave him that opportunity. He saw something in Aidan that allowed him to come on as a preferred walk-on and let Aidan earn his keep.”

Now, O’Connell is looking to make a name for himself as his improbable journey continues.

“I am gonna try to go to the game this Saturday,” said Becker. “I texted with Aidan after the (Nebraska) game to let him know we were all proud of him and excited for him.”

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