No Need to Thump His Chest

Linebacker Johnny O'Neal is a hard hitter on the field, but he doesn't see a use in telling people about it.

DEXTER – Johnny O'Neal, all 230 pounds of him, acknowledged defeat by sitting down in his locker and staring at the ceiling.

The 2013 linebacker had been bested by his uniform, which he couldn't pull over his shoulder pads after finishing up a photo shoot on a random day in February.

He needed help and West Laurens coach Stacy Nobles was there to provide assistance. That's a role Nobles has embraced, whether it be tugging on the most recent Georgia commitment's jersey or aiding in his star player's recruitment.

"These kids aren't pieces of meat to me," Nobles, who played running back at Liberty University in the late 90s, said. "I'm going to love Johnny regardless, wherever Johnny goes and whatever Johnny does. These kids aren't tools for me to win. I want to win as bad as anybody, but I'm here to take care and mentor these kids."

Nobles is one part of a three-pronged support system for O'Neal. His mother and father go to all his games and have given him advice since he was old enough to listen.

"On Friday nights you can hear my dad saying, ‘Go Raiders.' It's pretty amazing," O'Neal said. "No matter where I go or how far I go they're still my number one fans."

O'Neal committed to Georgia in late March after dealing with the recruiting process since he was 14 years old.

After assuming a starting role in his freshman year Florida offered O'Neal. Many schools around the South followed soon thereafter. The whole process began and raged so quickly that O'Neal was left wondering how it all had happened.

"I thought it was awesome to tell you the truth," he said.

Strong sophomore and junior seasons made O'Neal a national recruit. Southern Cal and Ohio State offered this winter, and recently ranked him the No. 9 inside linebacker in the nation.

None of that seemed to matter to O'Neal. He had goals, like squatting 500 pounds (which he achieved), to accomplish first.

"He's intense," Nobles said. "He's done a good job in the weight room. He's got some tightness in his hips that's going to make that much faster and stronger as he works on that. That's a really scary thing. He's really working on that."

O'Neal began playing football as a four-year-old. He told his parents early on that he wanted to play in college and later in pros. His father's advice: Work hard.

Wisely listening to those words, O'Neal got to work. Football quickly became a love, perhaps more like an obsession. If it weren't for football, O'Neal has a good idea where he might be today.

"Probably to tell you the truth running the streets," he answers. "I'm not a bad kid, you know what I'm saying, but it's easy to run with the crowd or whatever. I'm glad I got into football at such a young age. As I grew I started to love it.

"It teaches me discipline, but it also teaches me about life. You're going to have sometimes in games where you're going through adversity, but you've got to learn to keep grinding, keep pushing, just to keep fighting to get through it."

Known as one of the hardest hitters in the state, O'Neal doesn't do much talking on the field or away from it. He's a lead-by-example type because that suits his personality. He's reserved and quiet unless around family and friends.

"Just seeing the way he hits people, Johnny could pound his chest all night long," Nobles said. "But he stays humble. We teach God first, and I know Johnny believes that. Johnny displays that on the field. It's not a me-thing with Johnny. It's more of a team-thing with Johnny, which I think is pretty cool with a kid of his talent."

When he's not playing football, O'Neal says he's conditioning or working out. And when he's not doing that he's studying to improve his grades. Other than bowling and going to the movies, every move O'Neal makes seems to be related to football and making it to the next level.

"My dad told me to keep working hard and I'd get there," he said.

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