Kevin C. Cox
Find out more about one of the guys who'll be counted on to step up quickly for the Georgia defense.
O'Neal is listed at 6'1 or 6'2 and around 230 pounds. I haven't seen every recruit in Georgia's class up close, but I can confidently say O'Neal's a solid 6'1. He's also a pretty impressive physical specimen. He's not long or rangy. He's thick. Thick neck, thick legs, broad shoulders. In a recent interview with Radi Nabulsi of ESPN, O'Neal listed a bench press max of 395 pounds and a squat max of 525. Physically he reminds me a little of Odell Thurman, though I'm not certain he's quite as explosively athletic as Odell, at least not yet.
Offers You Can't Refuse.
Johnny O'Neal started getting offers from SEC schools after his sophomore season. By the time he committed to Georgia he had offers from a veritable who's who of college football programs, including: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Louisville, Tennessee and South Carolina. That's an impressive list. You'll notice also that those schools play a variety of defensive schemes. It's not unusual to see a guy hotly pursued by only a couple of schools who see him filling a very specific role. It's a tribute to O'Neal's overall athleticism that half the SEC sees him fitting nicely into what they want to do on defense.
O'Neal has been named an Army All-American for 2013 and will play in the annual scrimmage in a few months. He's rated 247Sports' composite rating (which aggregates their rankings and those of other national recruiting services) slots him as the #8 inside linebacker in the country, and the #17 player in the state of Georgia. He committed to the Bulldogs in March, after saying that the Georgia coaches made clear that he was a priority.
The Tale Of The Tape
You can see video of young Mr. O'Neal on his Hudl page here. There are highlights on this page from almost every game of his junior and senior seasons, which pair nicely with the Youtube videos of his sophomore season. I first saw Johnny O'Neal play as a sophomore. I've seen him during each of his subsequent seasons of high school football. He's definitely grown a lot physically, to the point that he now looks like an SEC linebacker.
As you scroll through the highlights on that Hudl page a few things besides physical appearance stand out. For one, O'Neal is a great tackler. Granted West Laurens coach Stacy Nobles is a fundamentals first kind of coach, but it's worth noting that his pupil has absorbed that lesson well. A lot of high school linebackers don't want to fit their helmets up into the ballcarrier and deliver a blow. And while there's a distinct difference between doing that to a 160 pound high school tailback and doing it to a guy like Eddie Lacy or Todd Gurley, it's one good habit our coaches won't have to teach.
O'Neal also does a great job taking on lead blockers, an essential skill against pro-style offenses. Again, you see less and less of this as high schools around the country (and in Georgia specifically) have abandoned the wishbone, power-I, and similar schemes in favor of spread formations and pass first philosophies. In an SEC that still includes Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, and, well, whoever the heck ends up coaching at Tennessee, fullbacks still happen. You still have to deal with them if you're playing the mike or mo linebackers in Todd Grantham's system.
The young man from Dexter also displays great instincts for the ball. Part of this is the fact that he's played so much football. There's really no substitute for getting lots of snaps, and O'Neal has played a lot of football against pretty good competition. As a result I think he'll be able to step in at least in a limited role in 2013 if we need him to.
If you've ever seen Johnny O'Neal speak you know he's not a microphone hound. Really, you'll never see a prospect less inclined to do interviews. That being said, the Raider defense keys off of him. They respond to him. And he doesn't back down. He's a nice kid who just so happens to turn into a mean S.O.B. on the football field. That's a good combination.
The Big Picture
Georgia loses a lot of talent at the ILB spots after this season. Christian Robinson and Mike Gilliard will graduate, Alec Ogletree is as safe a bet as you can find to leave after his junior season for the NFL (well, at least among guys not named Jarvis Jones). Brandon Burrows hasn't really been a steady contributor because of injury issues. That means that Georgia will have to rely on Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson to step up, and will likely end up playing some freshmen as well. Given his physical developments and football IQ, I expect O'Neal to be one of them.
Until later . . .