Pitt OL Brian O'Neill is one of the team's best blockers. He's also a touchdown threat, so watch out when he gets the ball.
Pitt offensive lineman Brian O'Neill is starting to receive national attention, and not just for his elite blocking. Despite being a 6' 6", 300-pound right tackle, O'Neill's prowess as a ballcarrier stands out. For a moment, though, he was worried he wouldn't get the chance to show it off.
On the Tuesday before the Panthers' Oct. 8 game against Georgia Tech, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi informed O'Neill that the team was planning to run a designed lateral to the big man if they got between Tech's 20- and 25-yard line on the left hash.
According to O'Neill, Narduzzi had one final word of advice for him before the game. "Be ready," Narduzzi told him. "Don't do anything stupid when you score a touchdown, because you're going to score a touchdown."
Then, as the Panthers stormed out of the Heinz Field tunnel in their royal blue-and-mustard yellow throwbacks to the tune of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," disaster almost struck. "Two guys in the line in front of me tripped, and I went right down with them," O'Neill said after the game. "Coach [John] Peterson came up to me after and was like, 'You just tripped over that and we're going to expect to throw a pass to you today?'"
O'Neill pleaded with his offensive line coach, who was only half-joking.
"Come on, coach! You can't take that away from me now," O'Neill told him.
Narduzzi, Peterson and the rest of the Pitt coaching staff are probably glad they stuck with the plan. Sure enough, the Panthers drove to the Yellow Jackets' 24-yard line on the opening drive of the game, and had the ball set up on the left hash with 11:52 left in the first quarter. Quarterback Nathan Peterman took the snap and rolled to his right, but he wasn't really looking for anyone there.
Meanwhile, O'Neill—a high school wide receiver who converted from tight end to right tackle before last season—had snuck over to the left side of the line before the play.
"Me and Biz [Adam Bisnowaty] have to switch positions on that play. So one of the things you're thinking is, 'Are they going to recognize it real fast?'" O'Neill said. "But we do enough switching and unbalanced [lines] and motioning and stuff to where it's not uncommon to see me on the left side."
But the play doesn't work without a good acting job by O'Neill.
"I kind of pretended to come off the ball late and I was like, 'Oh crap.' The defensive end ran right past me and I just turned around," O'Neill said. "You've got to make sure you're behind the quarterback because the play is a lateral. I did that and the rest is history."
After making sure he was behind Peterman and catching the swing pass, O'Neill said only two things were on his mind: run, and don't fumble. His fellow offensive linemen made sure fumbling wouldn't be an issue, as he rumbled untouched behind the convoy of bright blue blockers for a 24-yard touchdown—his first score since the Delaware state championship game his senior year.
After waiting almost a year-and-a-half to get his hands on the football, O'Neill had one message for the cameras when he got back to the sideline.
"I told them I could tote that thing!" O'Neill said with a wide smile in a Pitt LiveWire video.
If Narduzzi and the rest of Pitt's coaches didn't believe him before, they definitely do now.
Three weeks later, with the Panthers lined up on first-and-goal at the 5-yard line against Virginia Tech, the redshirt sophomore tacked on the second score of his collegiate career on just his second offensive touch.
Peterman faked a handoff to star running back James Conner and gave the ball to the Panthers' 300-pound playmaker instead. O'Neill came around from the left side of the line on a reverse and accelerated past the Hokies' defense, diving into the end zone for a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter of an eventual 39–36 loss.
While there's no denying O'Neill scoring can provide a big lift to the team, he sees those plays a small part of his responsibilities as an offensive lineman.
"That's just one play for this entire year that I'm going to run," O'Neill said about his first touchdown. "If I was thinking about that play all week I wouldn't have been able to do the rest of my job well."
O'Neill may be one of the most athletic lineman out there, but he's also one of the best blockers. He entered last week's game against Miami with only one hurry allowed in 208 dropbacks, good for the second-highest pass blocking efficiency in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus.
When you're a 300-pound lineman who is a threat to score whenever he touches the ball, you're bound to start receiving some attention. But Narduzzi doesn't want the strides O'Neill has made as a blocker in just his second year at the position to go unnoticed, either.
"Forget what he does carrying the ball or catching the ball out of the backfield," Narduzzi said at his Nov. 2 media teleconference. "He's done a great job blocking people, too."
Steve Rotstein is SI's campus correspondent for the University of Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.