O’Korn not satisfied after strong freshman campaign
In many ways, John O’Korn is a normal University of Houston freshman.
He is still learning to adjust to the college-level course load, likes to play video games and enjoys the Italian food at Mandola’s, a popular eatery among students that is located near campus.
In many other ways, the 6-foot-4 quarterback stands above his peers on and off the football field. O’Korn, 19, tossed 26 touchdown passes — a Houston freshman record — and helped lead the Cougars (8-4, 5-3) to a turnaround season in his first year at the helm while balancing college with family, faith and football.
With UH preparing to face Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 4, O’Korn gave his first public comments on Tuesday. With members of the local media crowded around his seat, O’Korn calmly answered questions about everything from his decision to become a Cougar and journey to having a prolific freshman season to his proclivities outside of football.
“It’s such a blessing to be able to start as a true freshman for the majority of the season,” he said. “Going into the season, our motto was ‘something to prove.’ I think we proved a lot. … Those that are close to the program know that we haven’t even reached our full potential yet.”
Much was expected from a freshman who was a few months out of high school when the season began. O’Korn — the strong-armed prospect from prominent St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — was eventually expected to take up UH’s quarterback mantle, but the opportunity came quicker than anyone thought.
Junior quarterback David Piland’s career ended due to multiple concussions in the first quarter against Temple on Sept. 7. O’Korn was thrust into action, but it was a moment he felt ready for, he said.
“I prepared all offseason like I was going to be the starter and then all through camp. I was ready — at least I think I was,” O’Korn said.
With O’Korn under center, the Cougars went 6-4 and had several highs and a few lows. Against Rutgers, O’Korn tossed five touchdowns and completed 80 percent of his passes in his “coming-out party.” The Cougars won 49-14 in arguably their most complete performance of the season.
For the season, O’Korn passed for 2,889 yards and completed 60 percent of his throws, allowing him to be named to the third team on Athlon Sports’ Freshman All-America team. He was also named the American Athletic Conference’s freshman of the year, but head coach Tony Levine said O’Korn’s success this season didn’t surprise him.
“For John to come in having been 18 — he just had his 19th birthday a couple of weeks ago — and play as well as he did was certainly something we’re proud of him for doing,” Levine said. “I think he did an outstanding job this season.”
But for O’Korn, as with any freshman, there is still learning to do. Against the three toughest defenses UH faced — Louisville, UCF and Cincinnati — O’Korn and the offense struggled to score. In the three contests, O’Korn completed more than 50 percent of his passes and threw for more than 200 yards only once.
He also threw an interception against BYU in the final minute of a 47-46 loss.
“Going back to the BYU game, that was a big learning opportunity for me,” O’Korn said. “The last drive of the game, I tried to get too much probably on the first play of the last drive and threw an interception, and that’s something that has allowed me to sustain some drives (against Louisville, UCF and Cincinnati).”
A year after he landed at UH, O’Korn knows he still has more growing to do. Though he is not satisfied with his freshman campaign, O’Korn is resolute in his decision to choose UH over UCF, USF, Louisville, Wisconsin and Mississippi State.
“My decision (to come) here was the best decision of my life,” O’Korn said. “Every day, I wake up and I’m thankful that I’m here in Houston.”