When Salesianum threw a pass to Brian O’Neill last year, it was a surprise.
O’Neill isn’t fooling anybody this year. Of course, it’s hard to fly under the radar when you’re 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds.
The big senior has become a devastating weapon for the Sals and is sure to play a key role when second-ranked Sallies travels to fifth-ranked St. Mark’s for the first time in history Friday night. Kickoff is at 7:30.
“We’ve got to be accountable for where he is lined up all the time,” Spartans coach John Wilson said of O’Neill. “I think he has improved so much. … We weren’t as nervous with him lining up outside [last year], but this year he has certainly become more of a complete player.”
O’Neill showed flashes of offensive brilliance last season, catching six passes for 148 yards and four touchdowns. The biggest of those was a 50-yard score on the second play of the fourth quarter that sent Sallies past then-No. 1 Dover 22-21 in the second week of the season.
The Sals have opened up the offense this year, and O’Neill has been one of the biggest beneficiaries. Through six games, the senior has 16 catches for 356 yards and six touchdowns.
“He’s come so far, just in his strength and his maturity, his whole demeanor on the field,” Salesianum coach Bill DiNardo said. “He’s very confident, and he’s a very, very good football player on both sides of the ball.
“He can muscle with you, and he can run with you. He can do a lot of things.”
O’Neill’s big catch against Dover last year came on the Sals’ first pass attempt of the game. But the rapid improvement of senior quarterback Matt Sgro has prompted DiNardo to call more passes this season.
“We knew this year, for us to be successful, we had to make teams respect the passing game,” DiNardo said. “We had to spread the field and do some different things, and we’ve done that.”
O’Neill noticed the uptick in Sgro’s game during seven-on-seven play over the summer. The two have been teammates since their days at St. Mary Magdalen.
“We showed a vast improvement from years past. … [Sgro] is one of the best quarterbacks in the state, I think,” O’Neill said. “He’s the only quarterback I’ve ever had, really, in my life. He was my quarterback in grade school. He’s just been awesome this year, and that helps a lot. It makes my job easier.”
O’Neill makes it difficult on opponents on both sides of the ball. He has 23 tackles, 5½ sacks, nine pass breakups and two forced fumbles as a defensive end this season. He left a lasting impression on Steubenville (Ohio) in Sallies’ 36-19 victory last Friday.
“When he’s in the pass rush, last week he had five knockdowns,” DiNardo said. “Two of the interceptions that we returned for touchdowns last week were because he had tipped the ball. He’s an imposing figure.”
O’Neill usually splits out wide in the Sals’ offense, combining with 6-4 receiver Tyler Marroni to create matchup problems. But his future will be at tight end, and he has committed to play college football at Pittsburgh.
O’Neill knows he will need to make adjustments in college, where he will go against defenders able to match his size and speed. But there is plenty of high school football left, and few things would be sweeter than winning the first Sallies-St. Mark’s game to be played at St. Mark’s on-campus stadium.
“The venue doesn’t really matter. When it comes down to it, we play four quarters of football,” O’Neill said. “It’s against St. Mark’s, so that will get us hyped up, no matter what.”