A five-star prospect out of Cleveland Glenville, O'Neal verbally committed to the Buckeyes over rival Michigan during his sophomore year of high school. Believed to be the youngest player to issue a verbal commitment to the Buckeyes, the safety prospect was suiting up for Mansfield (Ohio) Senior at the time.
Nearly two full years later, he signed on the dotted line to play his college football at Ohio State. Instantly, he was pegged as a can't-miss player with great potential.
Now, as O'Neal and the Buckeyes prepare for the 2007 season, it seems the OSU coaching staff is still waiting for him to reach the potential he has demonstrated. After ascending to the starting spot as a sophomore following a season-ending injury to Anderson Russell in week five, O'Neal held down the position for the final eight games of the season.
But as the season went on, O'Neal appeared to be struggling within the overall defensive scheme. At Thursday's team photo day, the 6-1, 200-pound O'Neal admitted to not living up to expectations last season.
"It was me, basically," he said. "I held myself back. That's one thing I'm definitely not doing this year. I'm going 100 percent, throwing my body around and just trying to know the defense."
O'Neal is no stranger to the playing field, however. As a true junior, he has played in every game thus far during his college career – primarily on special teams as a freshman before seeing extensive playing time in the defensive backfield as a sophomore.
He recorded his first career interception in OSU's 44-0 rout of Minnesota in week nine and finished the season with 30 tackles. Still, he appeared lost at times on the field and was not guaranteed a starting spot for his junior season.
During the offseason, then, O'Neal was given a list of things to work on by the OSU coaching staff: Improving his flexibility, working on judging the ball and making plays.
The biggest improvement he said he feels he has made has been in his flexibility.
"I would say flexibility because it helps you with your speed and I think that's what I needed just because I was not running like I used to run when I first got here," he said.
Russell said he noticed improvement in O'Neal throughout the spring.
"He's been making a lot of plays for us, and he seems to have come a long way, especially from last year in terms of just learning the game and everything," he said.
A key for O'Neal has simply been getting back to playing without thinking. Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said the team's summer seven-on-seven workouts allowed O'Neal to get back into his comfort zone.
However, with the release of the first depth chart of the season came the news that O'Neal had apparently been passed by true sophomore Kurt Coleman.
It is not something he said he has discussed with his teammates.
"It's just on paper," he said. "The depth chart changes every day. You never know if you're going to be a one, a three or whatever. We just go out every day and basically fight for our position."
The goal for this year is simple, however: make plays and stay on the field.
"Last year I played some significant amount of time," he said. "I was on the field, but I didn't make as many plays as I wanted to. This year I want to make a bunch of plays."