After finishing up practice with the Wisconsin football team, the former Maryland quarterback heard from a few of his old teammates. C.J. Brown, the man who took O'Brien's starting job 10 months ago, had torn his ACL during a noncontact drill and would miss the 2012 season.
So he did what all people do during a friend's time of need. He called Brown.
"I just said, 'Keep being the leader you are and lead those guys because they're still going to need you in some capacity,'" O'Brien recalled telling Brown. "He's a really mentally strong guy, so he'll bounce back from it for sure."
Brown wasn't the only member of that conversation hoping for a comeback, though.
O'Brien followed up his 2010 Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year award with a tumultuous sophomore campaign last year. He struggled in new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton's spread attack and was benched midway through the season. When a broken arm finally ended his year in November, O'Brien had thrown for 1,648 yards, seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions — a far cry from his 22 touchdowns the previous season.
Ready for a change, the St. Paul, Minn., native decided to transfer in mid-February and began pursuing other options. He took official visits to Wisconsin, Mississippi and Penn State, and chose the Badgers after meeting with a player panel comprised of upperclassmen.
"The first thing I noticed right off the bat was just how hungry these guys are to win," said O'Brien, who can play in Madison immediately since he graduated from Maryland in May. "The tradition of football here at Wisconsin, that just really stuck with me."
He also couldn't help but notice the similarities between the Badgers and the 2010 Terps. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada uses a pro-style offense, the same scheme O'Brien ran under former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin two years ago. O'Brien believes it will allow him to do what he does best — sit back in the pocket and make his reads.
"I'm kind of just picking up where I left off my freshman year," he said.
And that includes a return to the starter's job. After holding an open competition between O'Brien, senior Curt Phillips and redshirt freshman Joel Stave, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema announced Sunday via Twitter that the former Terp will start the team's Sept. 1 season opener against Northern Iowa. O'Brien reportedly impressed the Badgers staff with his accuracy, throwing just one interception during the first two weeks of camp.
He'll now have to follow 2011 Big Ten Quarterback of the Year Russell Wilson, who also transferred to Wisconsin after graduating from an ACC school (North Carolina State). Wilson set an NCAA record for efficiency with a 191.8 rating, becoming the third-straight Badgers quarterback to complete more than 64 percent of his passes in a season.
O'Brien has never connected on more than 57 percent of his passes, but figures to benefit from high-percentage throws to running back Montee Ball and tight end Jacob Pedersen.
But right now, with his Wisconsin debut less than two weeks away, O'Brien isn't too concerned about Wilson's legacy. In fact, outside of periodic Brown checkups, he isn't even tracking Maryland. He's just trying to make the most of a new opportunity, on proving that last year was a fluke.
"I never doubted my abilities," O'Brien said. "This year will say a lot about how I bounce back from adversity."