Jonathan O’Brien: Under the radar


Farm town quarterback making big noise in the Big Valley

Although he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the southern portion of the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Sac-Joaquin Section, it hasn’t been hard for Jonathan O’Brien of Hilmar (Calif.) to be flying under the radar.

Since nearby Castle Air Force Base in Atwater was decommissioned in 1995 and turned into the Castle Airport Aviation and Development Center, they don’t really use radar there any longer for takeoffs and landings.

Besides that, not many folks know about the tiny agricultural town five miles south of Turlock.

None of that matters to O’Brien or his ability to sling a football. He just keeps on launching.

No drought on the football field

The lack of rain has really affected farmers in the California Central Valley, including Jonathan’s family that has been farming the same farm in Hilmar since 1902 after arriving from Sweden.

The almonds, alfalfa and corn they grow have been hit hard by the drought.

While there has been a drought rain-wise in the Big Valley, on the football field in Hilmar it’s been raining footballs.

Last season in leading the Yellowjackets to a 13-1 record, and the most wins in school history, O’Brien had excellent numbers despite the offense having a lot of players that could run the ball and Jonathan getting pulled early in several blowouts. By most accounts he had the greatest season in school history.

Jonathan finished with 2,110 yards on a school-record 143-of-224 passing, a school-record 25 touchdowns and only two interceptions for a school-record 128 QB rating. The 6-foot, 190-pound junior also led the bevy of running backs in yards and TDs with 506 yards and nine scores.

Along the way O’Brien got the team within a game of playing for a CIF Division IV Northern Regional Bowl Game title when the team lost 24-10 to eventual state champion Central Catholic of Modesto in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV title game.

For his efforts Jonathan was named the Trans Valley League Offensive MVP and the Merced Star First Team Quarterback.

Introduction to Will Hewlett

There aren’t a lot of top-notch quarterback coaches in the Central Valley portion of California, and Jonathan’s mother Chris O’Brien had taken him on a 250-mile round trip to one San Francisco Bay Area QB coach but the two didn’t click.

In January, one of the Hilmar assistants suggested they consider checking out NFA Director of Player Development Will Hewlett and his The Range facility in Livermore.

The local coaching community was aware that Hewlett was working with Hunter Petlansky, the sophomore quarterback of the Central Catholic team that knocked Hilmar out of the playoffs this season.

For the last nine weeks since the introduction was made in January, Chris has brought Jonathan to The Range on what is now a 150-mile round trip.

“If Will was closer by I’d like to go to him every day,” Jonathan joked. “With his changes in my mechanics I’m definitely seeing improvement in the way I can throw the ball – and my grip is better.

“It’s too soon to say because I haven’t used what he’s taught me in competition, but what he’s done is give me the confidence that with improving my mechanics I’ll be the best quarterback I can be – and I can get to the next level.”

Despite the short time together, Hewlett likes what he sees.

“Jonathan has displayed one of the smoothest and accurate releases I’ve seen in a while. His improvement has been in his footwork and adding velocity to his current throw. With his athletic ability, O’Brien has a college career ahead of him.”

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O’Brien’s follow through is going to look different after working with NFA Director of Player Development Will Hewlett

Chris has seen things as well from the way Hewlett interacts with her son.

“He’s so positive with the kids. Jonathan always comes away with good feelings.”

Getting exposure

Remember, Castle Air Force Base doesn’t have radar any longer, and Jonathan is out in the middle of the Central Valley, and although he attended a Rivals camp he hasn’t gotten a lot of exposure.

Not only is Hewlett whipping him into shape by improving his mechanics, he’s putting O’Brien on the radar screen.

“Will has really given me exposure to camps and meeting the right people. I know he’s working on getting me into the Elite 11 Camp and I’m really hoping it can happen.”

His brother a mentor

Jonathan’s brother, Wesley O’Brien, played on the 2008 Hilmar team that beat Central Catholic for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V championship, and was considered for the D4 CIF State Bowl game but not selected. He went on to play at UC Davis.

Rich history at Hilmar leads to lofty goals

Hilmar has won six CIF Sac-Joaquin Section titles, and besides the 2008 team Wesley played on the 2011 team upset defending CIF Division III State Bowl champion Escalon, so goal setting is easy for O’Brien.

“Definitely win another league championship, go for the section title, and if we can do that and then get to state, absolutely, that would be a dream to be part of.”

This spring and summer and NFA

O’Brien’s introduction to Hewlett also meant an introduction to NFA, and both Jonathan and his mother are ready.

“We’re letting Will guide us through the camps process and I like what I see about NFA. We’re still learning, but I trust Will,” Chris remarked. “When you trust him with your kid’s future you have to rely on that relationship.”

“If he says jump I’ll say how high?” said Jonathan.

Can O’Brien jump high enough to register on radar? We’ll see.

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Dual threat O’Brien jumping around to escape trouble.