“Cody was behind a guy (Eklund) that was kind of the alpha of the group, the leader of the group, had started 40-something games,” WSU offensive line coach Clay McGuire told Cougfan.com last week.
“Cody just didn’t take the position from him. He was right there and had the ability to do it but for whatever reason he sat back and waited his turn.”
And then came practices for the bowl game against Miami.
Coaches often treat bowl workouts as part game prep and part getting ready for the next season. With Eklund graduating, the left guard position would be all O’Connell’s for 2016 if he followed through on his promise.
“We started seeing it in the bowl practices,” McGuire said of the 6-8, 354-pound O’Connell. “He really started stepping up and playing well.
“When he became the guy it was like a switch clicked. Knowing that he was going to be a starter and expected to be a starter, the switch clicked and he really elevated his play and his preparation and started playing up to his potential.”
THE ELEVATION HAS BEEN SO PRONOUNCED that just 10 starts into his college career, O’Connell has played his way onto the national stage. Yesterday the fourth-year junior was named one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy as college football’s best interior lineman, offense or defense. No other WSU offensive lineman in history – not even College Hall of Famer Mike Utley – achieved that honor, and only one Cougar defensive lineman – 2002 Outland winner Rien Long -- has been a finalist.
“We’ve always known Cody had a tremendous amount of talent. It’s taken us a little bit longer to harness it than we thought,” McGuire said.
Coming out of Wenatchee High, O'Connell was rated 2 stars by Scout.com and received only one other scholarship offer -- from Idaho -- besides WSU.
“We knew he had the ability to play at this level. I’m proud of him. It’s awesome to see him step up and take advantage of the playing time,” McGuire said.
Perhaps no game better illustrates O’Connell’s importance to the Cougar offense than the one at Oregon State on Oct. 29. He had dinged a leg the week before against Arizona State and sat out the first half against OSU – a half in which the offense scored six points and looked miserable. O’Connell started the second half, the offense went into overdrive and WSU stormed back from an 18-point deficit to win. His work in the run game was devastating to the Beavers.
“He brings some physicality that we haven’t had in a while … Obviously our running game has improved dramatically from where it has been,” McGuire says, adding that O’Connell isn’t just adept at the point of attack but also in getting out to block linebackers.
WSU is averaging 132.5 yards rushing per game this season – up from 80.1 a year ago. And the average gain per running attempt is a full half-yard greater.
The Cougar hosses also are getting it done in pass protection. Last season they surrendered one sack one every 18 pass attempts, while this season it’s once every 22.5 attempts.
Continual improvement is one of the hallmarks of the Mike Leach philosophy and McGuire says O’Connell is the epitome of that quest.
“We continue to preach ‘get better every week’ and Cody’s really done a good job of that. He’s been focused all year long and comes out every single day to get better and that’s what has shown in his play – every single week he has a good game.”
And here’s the scary thing for opposing Pac-12 defenses …
“He’s got room to be a lot better. He still can get faster off the ball, get stronger. Next year he’s going to be bigger, stronger and faster. And he’ll have a lot more experience and be able to play faster. The sky’s the limit for him – he’s not anywhere near his peak,” McGuire says.
O’Connell’s combination of size, strength and explosive energy make him formidable, McGuire adds. But when you add in his focus on technique, it “gives him the chance to be really good.”
Just ask the Outland Trophy committee.
NOTABLE CODY NOTES:
- O’Connell blew his left knee in the fourth game of his senior season at Wenatchee High. In an interview with CF.C’s Braulio Perez two weeks later, O’Connell said his mind started racing the moment he went down and the No.1 question he had was whether WSU – whom he had verbally committed to four months earlier -- would honor its scholarship offer. A short time later, McGuire was on the phone to O’Connell and assured him his spot in the 2013 WSU recruiting class was secure. O’Connell vowed “to work my butt off to come back from my injury and be a Cougar."
- Despite playing only four games that senior year at Wenatchee High, he was named the league's lineman of the year, first-team all-class All-State by the Tacoma News-Tribune and Seattle Times, and 4A All-State by the Associated Press.
- Nicknamed "The Continent" by Mike Leach due to fact he is believed to have been the biggest incoming freshman in WSU history at 6-8 and 345.
- O'Connell won the Class 4A state title in the shot put on as a prep senior with a heave of 59-feet 9-3/4 inches in rainy conditions. His best effort of the season was 62-1.
- When O’Connell started playing football at age 8 he was considered a hazard for the other kids because of his size ... so was elevated into the 12- and 13-year-old division.
Related story: Apple Cup Predictions