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Pitt freshman O’Neill eats up switch to tackle

Jerry DiPaola
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt offensive tackle Brian O'Neill has gained more than 30 pounds as he transitions from tight end to the offensive line. 'There is a point in the day where you no longer want to eat,' he said, 'but you have to get it done. You have to grind through it, just like anything you do in football. That's what I did, and here I am.'

There was a time this summer when Pitt offensive tackle Brian O’Neill’s alarm clock went off at 3:30 every morning. Yet, he knew he still had a few more hours to sleep.

O’Neill was getting out of bed only to eat.

“I’d wake up at 3:30, eat two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” he said. “Then when I woke up again, I had another big breakfast before I got to the (practice) facility.”

In case you haven’t guessed, O’Neill was trying to gain weight.

Mission accomplished. Starting at 260 pounds seven weeks ago, O’Neill checks in at 293 while working as a redshirt freshman right tackle with Pitt’s top offensive line.

Stuck on a crowded depth chart at tight end, O’Neill was called into coach Pat Narduzzi’s office for a meeting at the end of spring drills. Narduzzi had a shortage at tackle after Jaryd Jones-Smith’s season-ending injury, so he proposed a position change.

“It was more of a conversation back and forth,” O’Neill said. “I wasn’t forced to do anything.”

O’Neill talked it over with his family, but the decision was an easy one, he said.

“It’s what the team needed,” he said, “and I went to him the next day and said, ‘I want to move to tackle.’ I haven’t looked back since.”

There was the issue of gaining weight, however. No small matter.

“I ate a lot,” he said. “Six full meals. If there ever was a time I was hungry, that meant I had to have food in my mouth. It wasn’t easy.”

“There is a point in the day where you no longer want to eat,” he said, “but you have to get it done. You have to grind through it, just like anything you do in football. That’s what I did, and here I am.”

A former wide receiver who averaged 18.6 yards per catch at the Salesianum School in Wilmington, Del., O’Neill wears the weight well on a 6-foot-6 frame.

“It’s neat to see an athletic tight end who can run and move,” Pitt line coach John Peterson said. “And then you put him in that offensive line group, and he can become an exceptional speed guy. He definitely has that skill level that is unique for good tackles.”

Peterson said he recalls moving another tall tight end to offensive tackle when he was on the staff at Ohio State. The 6-8 Reid Fragel made the move in his senior season, was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013 and is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After less than one training camp at a new position, O’Neill has moved onto the first team because of injuries. First to Jones-Smith and later to center Artie Rowell, which forced Peterson to shift Alex Officer from right guard to center and Alex Bookser from right tackle to guard. When Rowell returns, Bookser and O’Neill will compete for the starting job at tackle.

Peterson said O’Neill has embraced the challenge.

“The key is the want-to,” he said. “It’s a credit to Brian and his commitment to being an offensive linemen.”

Notes: Before camp, Narduzzi told his players he wanted them to improve 3 percent every day. That should be a 57 percent improvement after 19 practices, but he pegged it at 50 percent. “You have camp legs right now,” he said, “and I think guys are mentally and physically, ‘Is this almost over?’ It happens everywhere I’ve ever been. We’ll find out if that’s really who they are.” … Narduzzi said the team will have a light scrimmage Friday at Heinz Field and a “mini” practice Sunday. Players on Saturday will have their first day off since Aug. 9.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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