The last time an NFL team drafted a San Diego State quarterback was Dan McGwire in 1990. That’s one place you can start when explaining why the Aztecs fell on hard times.
But you can expect that drought to end this year with Kevin O’Connell, the fifth-year senior from La Costa Canyon High that starts for his hometown state university. The guy is a poster boy for keeping local talent at home.
One NFL scout that recently visited SDSU told me, “He was under the radar last year, but we know about him now.”
O’Connell, a 6-foot-6, 235-pounder, has McGwire-like size if not the McGwire’s arm strength. That’s not to say O’Connell will be a first-round draft pick, as McGwire was by the Seattle Seahawks.
But O’Connell has a few qualities going for him that prevented McGwire from fulfilling his potential in the NFL.
KO runs like a 6-foot quarterback and has the ability to find that second, third and — in the case of the game-winning touchdown pass to beat Wyoming 27-24 with 1:06 to play — a fourth option valued in quarterbacks of any size.
SDSU head coach Chuck Long, who says O’Connell’s accuracy has improved this year, says NFL scouts like how he consistently works through his progressions. He doesn’t lock on to a receiver.
It’s a quality NFL personnel people value more than prolific numbers. Todd Santos put up big numbers for the Aztecs and led them to their one and only Holiday Bowl appearance in 1986, but he was a 10th-round draft pick. The NFL draft only goes through seven rounds these days.
You can bet video of O’Connell’s 27-yard touchdown pass to true freshman Vincent Brown against Wyoming will catch the attention of NFL general managers.
With the Aztecs facing a third-and-13, O’Connell saw his first, second and third options covered. He broke left from the pocket and was about to try to scramble for yardage.
But then he saw a fourth option — Brown a second time. Brown, who began his route from the left side running a post pattern, broke off his pattern when he saw O’Connell leave the pocket and turned for the corner of the end zone.
O’Connell, who had started to tuck the ball, re-gripped and hit Brown with the game-winning score with 1:06 left in the game.
“I had to find the laces again, because I was fumbling the ball around in my hand,” O’Connell said. “It was a heck of a play by him to be a freshman and make a big-time play like that.”
O’Connell’s ability to run bought him time for Brown to get open. In the third quarter, he scored on a 29-yard touchdown run to trim Wyoming’s lead to 21-13. He broke up the middle, put a move on a linebacker and beat defensive backs to the left corner of the end zone.
The score was O’Connell’s seventh rushing touchdown of the year and 15th of his career, setting an SDSU. He was previously tied with 14 with Matt Kofler, who, by the way, was drafted in the second round by the Buffalo Bills in 1982.
— TOM SHANAHAN