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Starting QB O'Brien quits SDSU team
Embattled QB walks away amid criticism; Sumner to get larger role
The South Dakota State football program was involved in another shocking outcome Monday, as third-year starting quarterback Thomas O’Brien abruptly quit the team.
Jackrabbits coach John Stiegelmeier said that the fourth-year junior broke the news to the offensive staff and then to his teammates during a 4:30 p.m. meeting in Brookings.
Everyone was caught off guard - including the 15th-year coach, who had an extended talk with O’Brien on Sunday evening after the team returned from a game at Cal Poly, where SDSU suffered a second straight lopsided loss.
At no time during that discussion did O’Brien indicate he was considering quitting - and Stiegelmeier said he would have been the starter this week for the Missouri Valley Football Conference opener at Illinois State. Instead, either redshirt freshman Austin Sumner or junior Jordan Thomas will get the call.
“He really was very emotional, which you could understand, and just said that he’s going to walk away from it,” Stiegelmeier said.
Why did he walk away in the middle of the season? O’Brien didn’t respond to requests for comment. But the quarterback told the coaches that his heart wasn’t in it anymore. He also indicated a sense of mounting pressure and felt that the fans didn’t believe in him. Senior running back Dom Clare hinted at that Monday night on Twitter, writing: “Are you guys that boo your own player at games happy now? You did the same thing to Ryan Crawford. #fairweatherfans”
From Winona, Minn., O’Brien was thrust into the lineup as a redshirt freshman, first when the senior Crawford went down to injury and again after Crawford proved ineffective.
O’Brien led the Jacks to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs - their first posteason bid in 30 years - that fall, but regressed last year. The Jacks went 5-6, their only losing record in a decade.
The uneven results continued this fall. On Saturday, he had a career-high 376 yards, but also threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns - the third and fourth “pick-sixes” he had given up this season - in a 48-14 defeat at Cal Poly.
The Jacks (1-2) have lost two in a row by a combined score of 104-17 - their most lopsided two-week run since 1912.
Also in San Luis Obispo, the 6-foot-3 O’Brien slid feet-first at the 1-yard line with time running out in the first half rather than putting his head down and trying to score. The clock expired, the Jacks didn’t pick up points they desperately needed, and Stiegelmeier later lamented the lack of grit shown on the play.
So did O’Brien still have the support of his teammates?
“I don’t think it’s any different than before,” Stiegelmeier said. “I think at times a team can be just like a fan - they’re pretty subjective and they expect perfection and they don’t look at their own shortcomings.”
Suddenly, the Jacks are short on experience at quarterback. A 6-foot-5 former Brandon Valley star, Sumner is 6 of 7 for 65 yards this season, while Thomas - a junior college transfer in 2010 - has yet to appear in a game at SDSU.
As for O’Brien, he is expected to remain in school, but won’t be on scholarship come spring semester.
“You grow when you make tough decisions, and Thomas made a tough decision,” Stiegelmeier said. “I hope and pray that he’s comfortable with it.”
by Terry Vandrovec, Argus Leader