When Jamario O'Neal signed with Ohio State in February of 2005, he joined the Buckeyes with plenty of fanfare out of Cleveland Glenville.
But earlier this season when O'Neal was injected into the starting lineup by virtue of a season-ending knee injury to safety Anderson Russell, the inexperience was a fan's worst fear.
The sophomore safety, formerly of Mansfield Senior High School before finding a new home at Glenville under the watchful eye of Ted Ginn Sr., had the unenviable task of replacing Russell after a torn ACL suffered during the 38-17 win against Iowa. Slowly, O'Neal has been finding his niche in the young but effective Buckeye defense as the season wears on.
"He's done a good job coming in," said Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel of O'Neal's progress. "I think Jamario will continue to improve and he's going to be a good player."
The 2006 season has been a parade of interceptions for the Buckeye defense. With 15 entering the game on Saturday, O'Neal and corners Malcolm Jenkins and Antonio Smith added an addition three picks combined for 18 total.
The interceptions, including O'Neal's first career pick, contributed to a 44-0 shutout of Minnesota.
"I'm feeling a lot more comfortable," O'Neal said. "I think it's good to go have fun and go make plays."
O'Neal had four tackles and an interception on Saturday, both career-highs. He's part of an evolving secondary that is tied for second nationally in interceptions with three more on Saturday.
Jenkins, Smith, O'Neal and free safety Brandon Mitchell have combined on a pass defense that ranks No. 3 in the nation giving up just 169 yards a game. They've only allowed 5 touchdowns passing as the nation's No. 1-ranked scoring defense (7.3 points a game).
Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock is pleased with the development of O'Neal in addition to the rest of his secondary.
"The neat thing about him is that Anderson Russell was doing a great job for us and Anderson got hurt, is out for the year, and it's amazing that J-O came in, he's gotten better and seems to be improving each week," Heacock said, "He's a young player that is wanting to do well and wanting to contribute."
Heacock noted that O'Neal, as many young defensive backs, sometimes are slower to pick up things than other positions.
"I think with all those young guys, we do a lot of stuff on defense and they have to learn the assignments and know what to do," he explained. "It's easy to know what to do but then doing it in the heat of the battle is more difficult."
As one of many playmakers from loaded Glenville High School, including former OSU safety Donte Whitner, quarterback Troy Smith, wide receiver Ted Ginn, linebacker Curtis Terry and freshman defensive end Robert Rose, O'Neal admits he was reluctant to pick up the psychological and mental aspects of playing his position early on.
But now, he's becoming more aggressive as he knows where he's supposed to be and his instincts are kicking in.
"Coming in, just getting thrown in there it was like, ‘what am I doing? What am I doing?'" he explained. "But now it's like, ‘just go make a play.'"
As a sophomore who may seem to be wise beyond his years, Jenkins echoes similar explanations for O'Neal's steady improvement.
"I think he's just starting to grow into his position – he's starting to relax and play ball," Jenkins added. "Earlier in the season he might have been playing to not mess up and now he's playing to make plays. He's relaxing and having fun."
He's been making plays despite battling through a deep thigh bruise. The slow emergence has given people hope that he is beginning to live up to his lofty ranking out of Glenville – ranked as the No. 3 cornerback by Scout.com.
"I feel like I can still make more plays," he concludes, "and I feel like the DB's can make more plays."
O'Neal has become another cog in a stout defensive backfield. Antonio Smith is second on the team with 42 tackles, including six and a half for loss and two interceptions. Brandon Mitchell has 39 tackles and an interception while Jenkins has 31 tackles and four interceptions.
Jenkins, who played a lot in 2005 as a true freshman, sees O'Neal gaining valuable experience and improving on a weekly basis.
"He's progressed a lot," said Jenkins. "He's maturing just like everyone else does. He had some growing pains early but now he's starting to learn the defense, know his assignments. He made some big plays today and he's going to be a great player."