Whether it’s walking to class, practice or home, O'Connell is still constantly surprised by one of the mysteries of the WSU campus.
“All Pullman is one big hill,” explains O’Connell. "You can go up one hill and still have to turn around and go back up another hill. I don’t know how that works.”
Most folks imagine a 6-8, 354-pound student-athlete might not even notice terrain that is beautiful to look at but challenging to walk.
“You’d think walking these hills day in and day out would get easier, but they never do," said O'Connell. "I feel like they get steeper every time I go up them.”
The fourth-year junior from Wenatchee is a familiar face on campus and on the Cougar roster, but now he's set to become a game day force on WSU’s Goon Squad. That’s right. The Goon Squad is the nickname for the big guys up front charged with opening holes for the trio of Cougar running backs (Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and James Williams) as well as pass protecting for Luke Falk.
Who came up with the moniker Goon Squad? As best as O’Connell can recall, it was one or both of his former teammates, Eklund or Dahl, a couple of years ago. Needless to say it’s a name that’s stuck with the group proudly and describes the way the O-line plays. They even have t-shirts linking them to the unheralded work accomplished by the Washington State offensive line.
Mike Leach and his staff emphasize the importance of trying to improve every day, every game or practice and each and every rep. During fall camp O’Connell prioritized specific areas he would focus on improving.
“Being patient on my punch,” O’Connell said was his primary goal. “Staying back and knowing when I need to throw my punch. Knowing how far away the (rusher) can be before I can throw that punch without getting overextended.”
Other elements of his job as left guard that he is working on include maintaining the proper depth and his footwork.
Leach believes there are advantages to the entire team starting fall camp on the road in Lewiston. O’Connell is definitely on board with his head coach’s decision and for obvious reasons.
“Not having any distractions outside of football and just being with each other,” says O’Connell about the benefits of beginning camp away from campus. “Just playing football. Kind of being more professional.”
Another key element of the Lewiston segment of preparation for the season is the opportunity to get to know your teammates better, because of seclusion, which leads to building stronger bonds. O’Connell found his assigned roommate to be an interesting choice. He bunked with Nnamdi Oguayo, a second-year freshman (6-3 - 227) defensive end.
“It was kind of cool rooming with him. He’s a D-lineman and I’ve gone against him a couple of times in 1-on-1 and team stuff. We’re friends off the field,” but when it’s time to hit the practice field O’Connell points out, “It’s a whole different thing when you put those pads on. Everything changes. You have a different mindset. No one else is a friend except the guy you’re working with. Everyone else is just an enemy.”
The guy O’Connell goes to work with when the offense takes the field is another Cougar who’s really come into his own this camp, third-year sophomore Andre Dillard (6-5 - 295). O'Connell is candid about how the process of meshing with Dillard is progressing.
“We’re doing pretty good. Just like everyone else we might have our day when it’s kind of a down day, but we work to limit those as much as possible. You have to communicate and know who you’re working next to and know the play," he said.
There were many who questioned if there would be adequate replacement of the two guys (Dahl and Eklund) who anchored the left side of offensive line the last few years. Based on how rare it’s been in fall ball to see anyone sack a Cougar quarterback, O’Connell and Dillard have formed a solid wall on the O-line.
“I think I’ve gotten more aggressive on the field,” explains O’Connell. “I’m more comfortable of who I’m working with. Getting out there and playing a little bit harder. That’s one of the bigger things I’ve worked on and accomplished. I know what I can do.”
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is helpful if your goal is to get better every day. Offensive line coach Clay McGuire likes to get his players reps at every position across the line. Should someone go down, McGuire wants the best player ready to step up. Learning the job of each spot across the O-line not only serves to facilitate a team effort executing the blocking scheme of each play, it assures players are matched to their best position.
“I love playing guard," said O'Connell. "It’s the (position) I played mainly going through high school. I don’t have to deal with those fast guys off the edge. You can be more physical and hit people when you’re uncovered. It’s a lot of fun.”
O’Connell definitely looks forward to releasing a block and getting downfield.
“It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of running. You know big guys don’t like to run much but when you get to go down there and hit at full speed, there’s nothing better," he said.
The consummate teammate, O’Connell’s goals for this coming season should pave the way for success, not just for himself, but for the entire WSU football team.
“To get better. Work each play. Win each play. If I can do that I’ll put together a good season,” said O'Connell.