Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2008 | Before Kevin O’Connell’s senior season, I compared the 6-foot-6, 235-pound San Diego State quarterback to Drew Stanton, a 2007 second-round draft pick by the Detroit Lions.

At the time, I didn’t realize I was selling O’Connell short, and in more ways than one.

The La Costa Canyon High alumnus is taller, heavier, faster and a better passer.

NFL scouts are having a hard time comparing O’Connell to other quarterbacks. The only starter in the league with his size and wheels is the Tennessee Titans’ Vince Young, and O’Connell is arguably more advanced at reading defenses coming out of college than Young.

All NFL scouts need to do to evaluate O’Connell’s pocket poise is watch film of his 27-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Brown on third-and-13 in the last minute to beat Wyoming. He made three reads, all covered, but he still found Brown after Brown broke off his pattern to get open. He delivered a pass in the corner of the end zone as he started to scramble.

That doesn’t mean O’Connell will hear his name as early as the second round in the NFL Draft on April 26-27, but know this:

From his senior season to his two all-star game appearances in Houston and Honolulu to last weekend’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis, O’Connell has continued to improve his stock.

There’s little doubt now that O’Connell will be the first San Diego State quarterback drafted since Dan McGwire was a first-round pick (and bust) by the Seattle Seahawks in 1991.

That’s 17 straight years without an Aztecs quarterback taken even in the late rounds. Do you need another reason to know why the program has struggled for so long?

O’Connell no doubt helped himself, too, when NFL scouts graded his personality and makeup from interviews and tests.

Think about what he overcame at SDSU. He didn’t play on a bowl team. Defenses were stacked against the pass because the Aztecs’ couldn’t run the ball. He took a pounding on sacks. His junior season was essentially wiped out by a fluke injury from his thumb hitting a defender’s helmet in the season opener. And in the middle of his career, he endured a coaching change.

But he kept getting better.

“I felt this season I took a step forward in every aspect and more so mentally,” O’Connell said. “I think with the situation we were in here (SDSU), my leadership skills and my mentality was tested. I really feel like I was able to leave this program better than when I got here. I think it’s on the rise, and I think that’s stuff I can take with me.”

O’Connell made the choice to stay home, turning down Colorado among others, and now it’s a fair question to wonder if the Chargers will give him the chance to remain a 619 quarterback.

“I’ve always been a fan of the Chargers,” O’Connell said. “They’ve got a solid organization from top to bottom. If I’m lucky enough to be drafted by anybody, I’ll be ready to go to work.”

The Chargers may be in the market to draft a quarterback by the end of the week. Veteran Billy Volek becomes a free agent Thursday.

If Volek signs with another team rather than re-signing with the Chargers as Philip Rivers’ backup, the Bolts would need another quarterback on their roster to go with Charlie Whitehurst, a 2006 third-round pick.

Oddly enough, O’Connell is one of two San Diego college quarterbacks in the Chargers’ backyard. University of San Diego senior Josh Johnson was recently projected as high as a second-round pick by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King.

“We are aware of both quarterbacks and they’re very interesting players,” Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith told Chargers.com. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with Billy. Our study is still ongoing on all the quarterbacks in the draft.  I look at them both (Johnson and O’Connell) as draftable.”

Like a quarterback facing a blitz, O’Connell hasn’t blinked now that he’s being measured against quarterbacks that enjoyed a higher profile in college.

“I was really confident going into this,” O’Connell said. “If you’re going to have goals and aspirations to play at the next level, first and foremost you’ve got to believe in yourself and feel you belong. If you feel that way, you’ll fit in, and I did.”

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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