ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Michael O'Connor looks the part of an All-American quarterback. He's 6-foot-5, throws a nice tight deep spiral and learns quickly on the fly.
There's only one characteristic he's lacking to be an All-American — he's Canadian.
O'Connor, who will will enroll this spring as a junior at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., particpated in the Under Armour Underclassmen football combine Friday in St. Petersburg, which was held before the Under Armour All-America game.
From Ottawa, Ontario, he's part of a growing number of international players trying to make their way in that most American of sports. In an effort to improve his chances of playing for a college team, he played last season at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn., helping his team reach the state D-II semifinal.
"If you're a good Canadian athlete, it's sad, but you can't stay in Canada and achieve your full potential," O'Connor said. "All the sports opportunites are down here in the States. That's why you're starting to see this more and more because there's starting to be more talent produced in Canada, but they're going south because that's where the coaching and the exposure is."
It's a trend already in full bloom in basketball, where many consider the best player on a U.S. high school team to be Huntington (W.Va.) Prep forward Andrew Wiggins of Toronto. But basketball is a sport where a player can really develop a lot on his own. That's not necessarily the case in football, particularly for a quarterback. Plus, O'Connor had to adapt from Canadian rules (60-yard wide field, 12 members on a team) and from a culture where football is far from the No. 1 sport.
"In Canada, it's mostly hockey and lacrosse," O'Connor said. "Football is a little lower on the scale. Here, it's the top sport."
O'Connor's landing at IMG is hardly an accident. Long known as a sports academy for promising international athletes in tennis and golf, the school is planning to field a football team for the first time next fall with former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke as the director of football.
"(More than) 60% of our student population is international," Weinke said. "A guy like Michael came to us and was really interested in what we are doing and was interested in me working with him at the quarterback position. Usually, that's how it transpires. American football is becoming so much more popular on an international level…. I was amazed as I continued to do research at the level of excitement of football internationally."
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O'Connor has made a point to attend several college camps and combines to improve his skills and his visibility. He has offers from Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Michigan State, Toledo and Buffalo.
"You just have to come out (in a combine) and throw well," O'Connor said. "You have to represent yourself. I worry about the little things because that's what's important. If you want to get recruited, you have to go out there and go to as many events as you can. Be seen by as many eyes as you can."
Follow Jim Halley on Twitter @JimHalley.