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Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Coach's take: Johnny O'Neal

By David Ching

ATHENS, Ga. -- West Laurens coach Stacy Nobles believes Johnny O’Neal has everything Georgia is looking for from an inside linebacker -- if he can remain slim enough to play the position.

“I told him the other day, ‘If you keep putting on weight, you’re going to have to put your hand on the ground [to play defensive line],’ " Nobles joked. “But I think he’s going to fit in perfectly with what they’re wanting. I think he’s a prototypical inside backer with his size, his strength. When you look at his weight, he doesn’t have an ounce of fat on him. He’s rocked up and I think he’ll definitely fit the mold of what Georgia needs from him.”

Johnny O'Neal
Johnny O'Neal will have some catching up to do once fall practice begins at Georgia, but his high school coach believes he'll be a quick contributor at linebacker.
Nobles said the muscular linebacker weighed in at about 250 pounds at a state powerlifting meet last month, a weight greater than that of any inside linebacker on Georgia’s roster last season. But O’Neal’s sideline-to-sideline tackling skills still mirrored those of a smaller player -- and that was without ideal flexibility and agility, Nobles said.

“When we got here, Johnny had tight hips and that’s still one of the things he’s got to continue to work on now, and he’s worked on that really, really hard,” said Nobles, who took over at West Laurens before O’Neal’s junior season. “He’s gotten to where he can squat well over 500 pounds now parallel, and that’s the key. It was kind of scary to see how good he was with tight hips. When he gets those things completely loose, he’s going to be nasty. But he runs so well for his size. He’s up close to 250 pounds and he just runs sideline to sideline as good as anybody I’ve coached.”

O’Neal still must work on his pass-coverage skills before he can become a well-rounded SEC linebacker, Nobles said, but he displayed a work ethic that indicates he will put in the time to improve in that area. That dedication to the team certainly made an impact on his high school program.

“The kid was always practicing,” Nobles said. “He was at every practice, every workout. ... Johnny had every reason in the world to get the big head and not work hard, but he was a very humble kid. That was just as instrumental, if not more instrumental, than anything he did for us, just that precedent he set for our kids when they see a stud like him working like he does.”

Georgia has a huge hole to fill at inside linebacker this season following the departures of its three most experienced players: first-round NFL pick Alec Ogletree, Christian Robinson and Michael Gilliard. Juniors Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson appear to be the favorites to start the opener against Clemson, but the Bulldogs’ four inside linebacker signees each could have the opportunity to contribute this fall simply because of a lack of depth at the position.

O’Neal was ESPN’s highest-rated prospect among the four -- he was the No. 153 overall prospect and No. 5 ILB -- but fellow signees Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin already have a head start on O’Neal and Tim Kimbrough after enrolling in January and participating in spring practice.

O'Neal is well aware of the competition that awaits him, Noble said, but the coach fully believes that O’Neal will find a niche all his own once he arrives on campus next month.

“Johnny knows there’s already kids there ahead of him that he’s going to have to go in there and compete with,” Nobles said. “Johnny’s a good teammate and he’ll fit right in. I don’t think they’ll have to worry about his work ethic because I think he’ll go in there and he’ll be in the mix, competing for it right off the bat.

“Nothing surprises me with Johnny as far as football goes because of how dedicated he is, and his God-given talent is through the roof.”