The transition from Sallies receiver to Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman has been a joy ride for Brian O’Neill
Five years ago, Brian O’Neill, a senior at Salesianum School, received only tepid interest from big-time football programs, despite his size (6-6, 235 pounds) and a three-year career as a standout defensive end and receiver that culminated with the Sals winning the State Championship.
Oh, sure, schools like Colgate and James Madison came calling, but the only major power that recruited him was the University of Pittsburgh. Always eager to test himself against the best, O’Neill accepted the Panthers’ offer.
The recruiting of high school football players is a game within the game that is largely based on the recruit’s potential. That was certainly the case with O’Neill, and those schools that failed to see his potential no doubt second-guessed themselves as he went on to a stellar college career and is now preparing for his second season as the Minnesota Vikings’ starting right tackle.
O’Neill’s transformation from trim wideout to massive offensive lineman began at Pitt. Recruited as a tight end, he finished his freshman season at 255 pounds. Then, just after classes ended, a spot opened at offensive tackle, and the coaches approached him about switching positions. “It was the perfect storm,” says O’Neill. “I was third-team tight end, and now I had a shot at first-team tackle.”
But first he had to bulk up. So Pitt put him on a 6,500-calorie, five-meals-a-day diet. “They did all the planning,” he says. “They told me what to eat and when to eat. It was like a big project, but my job was pretty easy—eat what was on my plate. They told me if I did it right I’d have a good chance at starting.” The diet, coupled with heavy lifting in the weight room, had him tipping the scales at 290 pounds by the end of that summer.
Before embarking on the transformation, he called his coach at Salesianum, Bill DiNardo, who has high praise for his former player. “Brian was a starter for three years, and he got better every game,” says DiNardo. “He was a great competitor, didn’t care who he was going against, what their reputation was. He was a great leader—captain of the team his senior year. And one of the most fun kids I ever coached.”
Despite this lofty opinion of O’Neill, when the Sals head man heard that his former wide receiver was about to switch to interior offensive line, his first reaction was to laugh. “I tell this story all the time,” says DiNardo. “I thought Brian would have a great college career as a tight end; he had the perfect body type for it. He was a total mismatch [for defensive backs] as a receiver. But he was not a good blocker because he didn’t like to block. So I told him, ‘You’re not a very good blocker, how are you going to play offensive line?’ But Brian can do anything he puts his mind to. Anything he puts his mind to, he’s lights-out.”
O’Neill put his mind to blocking, and that fall he earned the starting right tackle job. The following two years he manned the more critical left tackle spot, starting 37 consecutive games, earning All-ACC third team honors in 2016 and a first team berth in 2017. He also caught two touchdown passes on tackle-eligible plays, which led to his receiving the Piesman Award, created in 2015 to honor a college lineman who runs, throws or catches the ball.
“I’m so proud of how good he became,” says DiNardo. “I compare him to Lane Johnson (Eagles right tackle; an All-Pro in 2017), who started out as a quarterback at Oklahoma. There are a lot of similarities.”
Like Johnson, who stands 6-6 and weighs 317, O’Neill is fast. He ran a 4.80 40-yard dash, best among all offensive linemen in the 2018 NFL Combine and the fastest time for a lineman since Johnson’s 4.75 in 2013. And by his junior year at Pitt, he had grown to 6-7 and 297 pounds.
And he’s extremely athletic. He was named Delaware Basketball Player of the Year as a senior after leading Salesianum to the school’s first State Championship. (Donte DiVincenzo, now with the Milwaukee Bucks after starring at Villanova, was a junior on that team. DiVincenzo propelled the Sals to a second title the following year.)
Team, Not Individual Achievements
During a recent phone interview as he drove from Minnesota to Pittsburgh, O’Neill listed these and other team achievements, rather than individual honors, as his fondest memories from high school and college. “The football and basketball championships at Salesianum,” he says, “and a couple of big wins in college. In 2016, we beat Clemson by one point at Clemson, and it was their only loss. And we beat Penn State at their place when they were ranked No. 4 in the country in 2017.”
His success at his new position helped O’Neill decide to leave school with a year of eligibility remaining and declare for the draft. “I love Pitt and the people there,” he says, “but given all the circumstances, it was a pretty easy decision. I had already graduated (with a degree in Finance), and I was drawing pretty good interest from NFL teams. I figured I would be picked somewhere in the first two rounds.”
He was right. He went in the second round, the 62nd pick overall.
O’Neill says he experienced relatively little hazing as a rookie in the Vikings camp, other than having to sing the Pitt fight song and make coffee and fetch water for the veterans. “It’s all fun,” he says.
“We have a good room,” he says of the offensive line meetings. “We really push each other, and the older guys really help you and bring you along.”
He says his “welcome to the NFL moment” occurred “every day for about the first three months,” courtesy mostly of the Vikes’ outstanding defensive end, Danielle Hunter. “He’s an All-Pro,” O’Neill says. “On Sundays, you don’t see any better than him, and he always goes hard. He helps me a lot.”
O’Neill entered his rookie season as a backup tackle behind starters Riley Reiff and Rashod Hill. He made his first start in Week 6 at right tackle after Hill was moved to left tackle in place of an injured Reiff. O’Neill kept his starting role the rest of the season, even after Reiff returned.
Asked if he misses catching passes, his answer is emphatic: “Absolutely not. If you run a route and the ball doesn’t come your way, you didn’t impact the play at all. On the O-line, you have to win every down. You’re held accountable on every play.”
He says he currently weighs 302 and would prefer to be between 305 and 310 when the season starts next month. Even at that weight, the ex-high school wideout is not among the bigger offensive tackles in the league. But, he says, “I’m at a weight now that I think is the best version of me as an athlete. I don’t think being 320 would help me. Being as strong as I possibly can be, being able to move really well, having a good idea mentally of what’s going on, I think that combination is better than being a 320-pound mauler. And I’ll still hit people hard.”
Offensive Line Coach Rick Dennison, new to the Vikings staff this season, agrees with that assessment. “[Brian’s] very athletic, and he played well [last season]. The knock, ‘Well, he’s too light, not strong enough, not stout enough,’ but he’s really proven that to be wrong. I think he’s done a great job.”
Athleticism runs in the O’Neill family. Brian’s father, Delaware Public Defender Brendan O’Neill, was a running back at Dartmouth, while his mother, Liz, swam at Northeastern. Older brother Eamon was a two-time Delaware Soccer Player of the Year at Sallies and went on to star at Northwestern. Sister Claire played hockey and lacrosse at Ursuline. His sister Lorraine has autism but loves to swim. His uncle, Delaware Gov. John Carney, was an All-Ivy League quarterback and MVP at Dartmouth.
O’Neill now calls Minnesota home, and says he loves the Vikings organization. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
He even claims to enjoy training camp. “It’s fun,” he says. “For a whole month you’re doing nothing but playing football and hanging out with the guys.”
Indeed, in a kind of what’s-not-to-like? summing up, O’Neill says, “I am 23 years old and I get to play football for a living and meet some unbelievable people through the whole process. Every 9-year-old playing peewee football dreams of this. I hope I can play for as long as my body lasts.”