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Even though Penn football's defensive backs unit is returning most of its starters, rookie-to-be Conor O'Brien is shooting to break into the starting lineup and contribute as much as possible, as soon as possible. 

Photo: Courtesy of Conor O'Brien / The Daily Pennsylvanian

A lot of athletes might say they were born to play their respective sport.

But a kid related to both the NCAA’s Division I-A single-season touchdown passing record holder and the winningest quarterback in Stanford history might have a slightly better argument.

Such is life for California native and safety Conor O’Brien, who is one of 29 recruits joining Penn football’s Class of 2020 looking to help the Quakers begin their title defense.

Needless to say, O’Brien needed no help being introduced to the sport. In his extended family are former Hawaii and Washington Redskins QB Colt Brennan — whose 58 touchdown passes in 2006 is a Division I-A record — and former Stanford and current Kansas City Chiefs QB Kevin Hogan, whose 36 career collegiate wins surpassed Andrew Luck for the Cardinal’s all-time record.

On a more immediate level, O’Brien’s father and uncle played high school ball at Mater Dei and Santa Margarita, respectively — a pair of Orange County powerhouses that have combined to produce the likes of Matt Leinart, Matt Barkley, Brennan and Carson Palmer. Both schools are in the same ultra-competitive Trinity League in which O’Brien made a name for himself at JSerra Catholic High School.

“My grandfather, uncles, cousins, we all played — the sport has helped shape me into who I am today and who I am going to be in the future,” O’Brien said. “I never felt a pressure to ‘live up’ to the standards they set. We chose JSerra because it was a new school and I would have the opportunity to leave my own legacy.”

Indeed, O’Brien wasted no time making his mark on the JSerra program. After earning a starting role as a sophomore in 2013 and securing 64 tackles, he exploded with four interceptions and 77 tackles – tied with then-senior and now-Penn starting safety Sam Philippi for his team’s lead — in 2014, securing a first-team all-league spot and forming an all-star safety pairing that will soon re-unite in University City.

“Sam’s a great friend of mine,” O’Brien said. “Off the field we hang out, go fishing, etc., and as teammates we competed for playing time, which helped us both earn starting jobs on both sides of the ball. We play well together.”

Just about any football player coming to Penn put up gaudy stats in his high school career, and O’Brien — who finished his career with another first-team all-league selection in 2015 — was clearly no exception.

But where O’Brien differs from the rest of the pack is the caliber of competition he dominated.

The Trinity League, for those unfamiliar with high school football, is a different beast. According to MaxPreps’ Freeman Ratings, it was ranked as the best league nationwide in 2013, and the second-best in both 2014 and 2015.

A “who’s who” of the quarterbacks O’Brien squared off against just in his five annual league games includes Josh Rosen — who started at UCLA as a true freshman and threw for 3,688 yards and 23 touchdowns en route to 2015 Sporting News Freshman of the Year status — Travis Waller — who now goes by Travis Jonsen and is expected to battle with Dakota Prukop to fill Oregon’s QB vacancy — and KJ Costello, a Stanford commit ranked as the third best pro-style QB in the Class of 2016 by 247sports.com.

“The Trinity League, top to bottom, has incredible talent and top notch coaches. It is unbelievable, and I definitely feel playing in Pac-5 and Trinity League is an advantage,” O’Brien said. “ I was never the biggest guy on the field, so playing against big, talented players has definitely prepared me for FCS football.”

And still, even against such stacked opponents, O’Brien helped take his Lions’ program to the top. Before his arrival to the varsity program in 2013, JSerra had not qualified for the CIF Southern Section playoffs or won more than six games in any season in school history.

But head coach Jim Hartigan — who happened to coach O’Brien’s father and uncle at their respective high schools — led a transformation, with O’Brien at the forefront. In O’Brien’s three seasons, the team went 24-8 overall and finished in the top 21 teams in California according to MaxPreps every year, including a CIF-SS Pac-5 quarterfinal appearance in 2014.

“I think Sam’s class was the real turning point for JSerra; they raised us to the next level,” O’Brien said. “We’d never made it to the playoffs before 2014, so I feel very good about where the program is going and I’m proud to be a part of that.”

One by-product of JSerra’s newfound success is that the school has become a pipeline to Penn. After sending Philippi — who immediately earned a starting role and contributed with 46 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions last fall — to the Class of 2019, O’Brien will join the team this fall.

And that’s not all, as O’Brien’s younger brother Riley, a defensive back and rising JSerra senior, also has committed to join Penn’s Class of 2021.

“I’m very excited that Riley has chosen to attend Penn. We have a great relationship, but very competitive,” O’Brien said. “A pipeline should be established; JSerra has some kids who can flat out play. They may not be the biggest or the fastest in the Trinity league, but they are the toughest, that’s for sure.”

At first glance, immediately cracking the rotation for a Penn defensive backs unit that returns three of its four starters in rising sophomores Philippi, Jyron Walker and Mason Williams might seem like a daunting challenge.

But for a kid who has spent his childhood learning from former Heisman candidates and his last three years going toe-to-toe with potential future ones, it’d be a foolish move to count him out.

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