There’s a player in the 2018 NFL Draft who averaged 13 yards per college carry and scored a touchdown more than half the time he got the ball. That player is not a running back or a receiver, but he is now a Viking.
Minnesota took Brian O’Neill with the 62nd overall pick on Friday, just before the end of the draft’s second round. O’Neill, a 297-pound left tackle from Pitt, toted the rock three times in his college career. Those were a 24-yard touchdown on a backwards pass ...
... a 5-yard touchdown on a freaking reverse ...
... and a 10-yard run that initially went for another TD, before a review overturned it and required Pitt to punch in from a yard out on the next play:
The total: three plays, 39 yards, and very nearly three touchdowns. O’Neill also threw two passes in his college career, and I don’t care that neither was caught. There’s no question O’Neill is the most dangerous offensive threat in the 2018 class ... if you discount all the skill players, LOL.
O’Neill doesn’t want to be defined by his dominance in space.
It’s already netted him a significant award. O’Neill’s first touchdown won him SB Nation’s Piesman Trophy, given to a lineman who does a decidedly un-lineman-like thing.
But at the next level, this multiple-threat lineman wants to focus on blocking, even with the league’s offense becoming increasingly collegiate in style and a high school trick play winning the Super Bowl. At the NFL Combine, he stopped well short of calling for more plays featuring him.
“It’s not for me to decide,” O’Neill told SB Nation during an interview session. “If it comes my way, I won’t say no. I didn’t really ask for it in college. I’m definitely not gonna ask for it in the pros. There’s a lot more you’ve gotta worry about there.”
I wanted O’Neill to acknowledge his dynamism as a touchdown-maker. I fished, asking him if the athleticism he showed on his first touchdown was a hallmark of his game — if he took particular joy in getting out on the edge and operating in space. He did not bite.
“I wouldn’t say I necessarily like to be in space more,” he told me. “I think it’s something I do well. But I like to play football. I don’t really say I wanna be one of these guys, I wanna be one of that guys. I wanna be a well-rounded football player, but it’s something I feel comfortable doing. I hope that answers your question.”
Some playmakers are humble.
But Jaryd Jones-Smith, an offensive line mate at Pitt and a fellow prospect in 2018, says O’Neill continues to look back on his scoring days.
“He still talks about it,” Jones-Smith told me. “You don’t stop talking about touchdowns as an offensive lineman.”
Calling anyone the originator of a football play is risky, because almost every play has appeared somewhere before. But O’Neill’s initial touchdown against Georgia Tech in 2016 appeared to inspire knockoffs around the country, like this by Wisconsin left tackle Michael Dieter.
The Badgers’ head coach, Paul Chryst, and offensive coordinator, Joe Rudolph, were the men who recruited O’Neill to Pitt.
It’s not a coincidence O’Neill is so good with the ball.
He arrived at Pitt in 2014 as a 240-pounder. He played a mix of tight end and receiver as a three-star prospect at Salesianum High School in Delaware, where he was also a state basketball champ. Chryst recruited him as a tight end. So did the other schools to show interest. The Panthers made O’Neill’s sole Power 5 offer.
O’Neill’s transformation into a behemoth was gradual. When Pitt converted him to tackle in 2015, after Chryst left and Pat Narduzzi’s staff took over, strength coach Dave Andrews put O’Neill on a regimen that included eating a peanut butter sandwich and drinking a glass of whole milk at 3:30 every morning. He eventually got there — O’Neill’s now a massive human, but still lean for a big-time lineman, at 297 and nearly 6’7 — and retained an athletic edge.
“I think there’s some things athletically that you can’t teach, in terms of some things that you can either do or you can’t,” O’Neill says.
“And the things that kind of get you to that next level in terms of playing offensive line is more technical stuff, and those can be taught. I know speed and agility and that kind of stuff can be worked on, and it can definitely be improved, but you start out at a higher pace level than if, say, you played line your whole life. At least I feel that way.”