Battling the H1N1 virus his true freshman season, causing his weight and strength to take a serious hit, and being moved to safety to start his redshirt season, O'Neill was struggling at an unnatural position, unable to crack the depth chart and unable to tip the scales.
Finally moved back to his natural linebacker position during Minnesota prep week last year, O'Neill has not only taken steps forward, he's thrived. Following a strict diet to add weight and strength to his frame, O'Neill is playing with the thing he's lacked for the last two seasons: confidence.
In two of the last four practices, O'Neill has registered two interceptions with the second team, and has shown a knack for making plays, giving the Badgers more solid depth in the middle of the defense. After practice Thursday, Badger Nation talked with O'Neill about his development.
Badger Nation: At times last year at safety, you didn't seem very confident with your movements. So far in spring, you seem to be playing with confidence and that you are playing more naturally. Is that accurate?
O'Neill: Yeah, definitely. Moving from linebacker to safety, it definitely was awkward. I remember in bowl prep that Jon Budmayr made me look like a fool. Now being back at linebacker, I just feel 10 times more confidence and comfortable. I feel like I am at home.
Badger Nation: Talk about the original switch to safety and what made them want to switch you back?
O'Neill: I'd say that when they noticed that I wasn't getting any playing time during the season at safety, they definitely thought I could help out in pass situations at the linebacker level. Coach Doeren, Coach Partridge and Coach Ash all approached me, asked me what I thought about the move and I told them that whatever gets me on the field quicker, I'd love it.
Badger Nation: Has it been rewarding then that you have come into spring and you have maybe exceeded your expectations? You are showing that you are starting to progress.
O'Neill: Yeah, just every day, I am trying to improve. It shows on certain plays but then there are certain things that I need to improve on. Coach Huxtable is definitely challenging me to improve every single day and be the best I can be every single practice. He demands everything from you, but he wants you to be consistent. He doesn't want you to have a bad day and then a good day. His tough love is definitely showing that he's making us all bring our best every single day.
Badger Nation: Can you talk a little about winter conditioning and how you attacked it to make sure you were in the best physical shape coming into this spring?
O'Neill: Knowing that Blake Sorensen was leaving as a senior outside linebacker, I attacked winter conditioning like I was going to be the number one player going into spring ball. I attacked knowing that I needed to put on a good 15 to 20 pounds and be about 220. I just challenged myself every single day to be the best play I could be for the Badgers. I just tried to get at it as hard as I could every single day.
Badger Nation: What's your weight at now?
O'Neill: Anywhere from 220 to 224 pounds.
Badger Nation: I remember after the H1N1 scare that you were down to about 180 pounds. Are you finally at the weight where you are comfortable playing football?
O'Neill: Absolutely. There has been a big difference this spring, noticing that I can play with the front seven and the big offensive line and the tight ends we have. I can play more physical at the point of contact, seeing that I have more weight and I am stronger than I was last year and especially when I was playing linebacker freshman year in the fall.
Badger Nation: You have always had trouble putting on weight, so did you overcome struggling putting on weight for almost a year and a half and all of a sudden put in on so quickly?
O'Neill: It just didn't happen overnight. When the coaches came to me saying that want me to go back to linebacker, I met with Coach Herb and he gave me a strict diet that I still follow to this day. He basically told that I need to be eating four to five times a day. He told me that I need to eat before I go to bed and I have been doing this since the week of Oct.9. I would have to get up early for classes instead of sleeping in and make six eggs and keep eating. I had to dig deep to put on weight.
Badger Nation: What's your typical eating plan like during the day?
O'Neill: Well, six scrambled eggs, Greek yogurt and maybe some fruit. I'll switch it up once in awhile and have some cereal or oatmeal. Then I'll have a snack before lunch, usually two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and anything that I have left over from the night before. Then I usually have 12 to 18 inches of a sub or a burrito with double meat. I'll get a shake when I am at the training table. I am usually the last one in the dining hall. Then I go home and have a little snack and a shake before I go to bed.
Badger Nation: Now, a lot of people are on diets and they have to stay disciplines by not snacking. Is it hard for you when you are not hungry that you have to force yourself to eat some food?
O'Neill: It's sad because my roommates and a couple teammates joke around with me that I am constantly eating. We'll leave the dining table and 20 to 30 minutes later, I'm hungry again. My metabolism is just going and I have to feed my body almost every hour or two. It's something that you have to live with. In high school, I used to have a PBJ between classes and that obviously wasn't enough. Up here, there is a lot more free time to go out and get some good before or after classes.
Badger Nation: You would love to have Chris Borland the player on your team, but what's it like having Chris Borland the player and the coach on your team?
O'Neill: It's interesting because coming in freshman summer, him, A.J. Fenton and I would hang out all the time thinking we'll be the three linebackers of the future. Then when he didn't redshirt and A.J. and I did and I moved, that faded a little bit. Now that we're all going to be redshirt sophomores and be able to play together, Chris brought it up the other day that we may be the three linebackers again. It's coming full circle.
A lot of times when I am watching film, I'll text Chris to see what he's doing because he lives just a block away. Just being able to pick his mind, he picks my mind and we try to pick up on certain things. We've watched film from Ohio State, Michigan State and keep going into Big Ten play to hopefully get a head start on some of our opponents.