Senior inside linebacker Conor O’Neill knew next to nothing about the University of Wisconsin football program while growing up in Florida.
Now, entering his fifth year at the school, you would be hard-pressed to find even a state product who is more passionate about playing for the Badgers.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed about since the day I signed my letter of intent, to get the chance to (start) for the state of Wisconsin, for the ‘W’ on our helmets,” O’Neill said.
“Growing up, I didn’t really know a lot about Wisconsin football, but coming here, it’s been the best decision of my life. What it means to be a Badger, it’s awesome. I can’t even describe it in words what it means to me, how proud and honored I am to wear a jersey that so many great players have worn.”
O’Neill’s final season with the Badgers got considerably more interesting at the start of summer workouts. Following individual drills the first day, senior linebacker Ethan Armstrong told O’Neill to get in with the starting defense at the rover position in the new 3-4 because Armstrong was moving outside.
Coming out of the spring, Armstrong was the projected starter at rover, even though he didn’t practice following shoulder surgery. But when O’Neill and junior Derek Landisch filled in capably, the coaches moved Armstrong to the field position, in part to take advantage of his coverage skills.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who coaches the linebackers, said O’Neill and Landisch are explosive, can beat blockers at the point of attack and can be effective blitzers.
“That rover linebacker spot is going to be a blitzing linebacker for us,” Aranda said. “A lot of times, that is our fourth rusher. They both showed capacity to do that.
“When things spread out and they have to be in space, they can do that. They are very talented deciphering the run game at the point of contact, knocking the other guy back.”
O’Neill, who attended St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and was a prep teammate of UW running back James White, has played in 40 career games with no starts. But he was with the No. 1 defense for the first practice on Monday.
After originally signing as a linebacker, O’Neill moved to strong safety, then back to linebacker. He has struggled to put on weight, but is now at 230 pounds, a new high after playing at 225 last season.
“I think the adversities I’ve faced, having multiple position changes and weight issues, not being able to secure a job earlier in my career, not being able to play the way I wanted to, to end on a good note, that would make me happy with my career,” he said.
Armstrong said O’Neill has always embraced his role without complaint, whether it was on special teams or playing in sub-packages on defense.
“He’s had a tough road, but he has stuck with it and he’s always been a great teammate,” Armstrong said. “He’s made plays in games, especially on special teams.
“I know he’s really looking forward to this opportunity and he’ll make the most of it.”
O’Neill used to sit in position meetings and look longingly at the front row, which is reserved for starters. He still has to win the job, but he has finally moved up to the first row and hopes the younger players can now look up to him.
“It kind of makes the journey a lot sweeter,” he said of getting this chance as a senior. “I know I have to appreciate everything. If I can get my hands on (the starting job), I’m going to do everything I can to make everyone proud.”