Each week the search begins in earnest.

It’s a necessary endeavor when your offense includes Allegheny College senior receiver Declan O’Brien.

“Finding new and creative ways to get him the ball throughout fall camp was one of the goals,” said Braden Layer, who is in his first season coaching the Gators. “Ultimately, he kind of took that and ran with it. Every week it’s been really where can we line him up to create mismatches? How can we give him, or guarantee him, touches?

“It’s really a nice problem to have in that more often than not by Monday evening we are trying to figure out what we need to cut because there’s plenty of ways to try and get him the football.”

The work put in by Layer and his staff has paid off — and then some.

O’Brien has caught 74 passes for 986 yards and six touchdowns through seven games of NCAA Division III Allegheny’s 2023 Presidents’ Athletic Conference campaign.

The 5-foot-11, 170-pound Norwin graduate sits in a tie with Jake Breitbach, of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, for first in the nation across all NCAA divisions for receptions.

O’Brien is third in the nation in receiving yards behind Collin Brunstein of Illinois College, who has 1,110 yards, and Breitbach, who has 1,067.

“I think it really goes to the level of trust everyone in this program has in me,” O’Brien said. “The coaches, my teammates, they trust me enough to have that type of workload and still be able to make every play positive and help us in different ways.

“The magnitude is not what I expected.”

A three-year starter, O’Brien had his 2020 freshman campaign at Allegheny canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He returned as a sophomore in 2021 and had 42 receptions for 620 yards and six touchdowns before recording 49 receptions, 691 yards and six scores as a junior in 2022.

“He’s the ultimate lead-by-example guy,” Layer said. “We’ve had to really pull him out of practices a couple of times or tell him it’s OK to take a rep or two off here and there to make sure we can get him as healthy as possible to Saturday. That just goes against his nature and what he’s about. He’s really a true competitor and someone who is willing to bring 100% of their energy in those four to six seconds on every single snap.”

O’Brien’s willingness to compete has been exemplified by his increased production this season.

After averaging 4.2 receptions and 62 yards per game as a sophomore and 4.9 receptions and 69.1 yards per game as a junior, O’Brien has exploded this season for 10.6 receptions per outing and 140.9 yards per game.

O’Brien has gone over 100 yards receiving in four of the Gators’ seven games and caught at least one touchdown in five contests. He had 14 catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns in Allegheny’s season-opening victory against Waynesburg before going off for 158 yards and a score on 13 catches the following week against Geneva.

In a Week 4 game against Bethany, O’Brien caught nine passes from Gators quarterback Jack Johnson for 214 yards and a touchdown. His best performance of the season came against Washington & Jefferson when he racked up 18 catches for 233 yards and a score in Week 6.

“I think this year specifically I think I’ve done pretty well against zone coverage,” O’Brien said. “I think we try to get me the ball a lot over the middle. I think I’ve really improved this year, and throughout the years, I’ve gotten better at finding openings and soft spots in the zone.”

O’Brien will look to continue to do so over Allegheny’s final three games of the regular season.

The Gators (2-5) will travel to face Westminster at Memorial Field inside Harold Burry Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday in New Wilmington and will close out its season with games against Thiel and Case Western Reserve.

O’Brien needs just 14 yards to become the second Gators receiver in program history to eclipse the 1,000-yard threshold in a single season.

Alex Victor racked up 1,037 yards in 2017 and 1,020 yards in 2018.

Senior receiver Declan O’Brien is in his third season as a starter at Allegheny College. (Courtesy of Ed Mailliard)

With three games to work with O’Brien should be in great shape to break Allegheny’s single-season receiving record and would eclipse Victor’s 2019 single-season reception standard of 76 along the way.

“I feel like that’s just everyone’s goal in this program, to just leave something lasting,” O’Brien said. “It feels great that I’ll be able to have my name that high up that people can look back on it and remember me for way longer than they would otherwise. I’m just glad I’m able to do this for the program.”

Although he is a senior, O’Brien still has one year of eligibility left — because the COVID-19 pandemic voided his freshman campaign — to go after Victor’s career receiving records of 3,294 yards and 219 receptions.

If O’Brien is able to do so while remaining among the top receivers in the nation, Allegheny’s program would benefit greatly, Layer said.

“We’ll have without a doubt graphics made, stuff printed, all sorts of material that we can send out to top athletes, top wide receivers, around the country of, ‘Hey, if you come play for us, this is the style of offense we run and what you may have as a possibility in your future,’” Layer said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that his performance will certainly help benefit the program recruiting. That’s without question.”

Allegheny College senior receiver Declan O’Brien, a Norwin graduate, is among the nation’s top receivers in any NCAA division. He has caught 74 passes for 986 yards and six touchdowns. (Courtesy of Ed Mailliard)

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at jsanta@unionprogress.com.

John Santa

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at jsanta@unionprogress.com.