MADISON, Wis. — The epiphany came for Conor O’Neill sometime this spring. He can’t recall a specific day, but he can safely cite that general timeframe when the light switch clicked on and he suddenly became one of the most invaluable pieces to Wisconsin’s linebacker core.
It was then when O’Neill realized his college career would be over after the fall. He didn’t want to look back in a year or five or 10 and regret that he played not to make a mistake.
That type of performance, O’Neill determined, would not define him as a player. And so he decided, as he began working for his fourth linebacker coach in as many years, he would play with the aggressive abandon he’d always wanted.
“I feel like in years past, I was so worried about impressing coaches that it kind of took my play down,” O’Neill said. “I was so worried all the time. Now I’m just playing. I’m running fast to the ball. If I’m making a mistake, I’m making it 100 miles an hour. I’m not going to let hustle and I’m not going to let my effort be anything that gets me down.”
The results of O’Neill’s changed mindset have been drastic. Through five games, he ranks second on the team in total tackles with 25. He tallied a career-high nine tackles in Week 2 against Tennessee Tech and seven tackles in Week 5 against Ohio State.
In fact, his play has been so good that Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who is in charge of the linebackers, acknowledged following Wednesday’s practice that O’Neill had earned a starting inside linebacker spot over teammate Derek Landisch for Saturday’s game against Northwestern.
“The times that he’s played, he’s been the player of the game,” Aranda said. “So his playmaking ability has been off the charts. That’s all you can ask for really as a coach is when you put someone out there, they make the most of that time. I think Conor is a great example of that.
“I’m a big fan of his and I think between Conor and Derek rolling out, the rover linebacker spot will be a productive spot for us.”
The lineup change is notable because it represents O’Neill’s first start since Landisch returned to full strength. Landisch edged O’Neill for the starting role out of fall camp, primarily because he was a better pass rusher. But Landisch suffered a high right ankle sprain during the season opener again UMass when nose guard Beau Allen stepped on him.
The injury allowed O’Neill to start two games in his place, and he has continued to make it difficult to be replaced.
“As a competitor, you always want to have your name first,” O’Neill said. “That’s something that I’ve strived for since fall camp and something I’ve taken advantage of when he was out. Something I’ve prided myself on is making sure I can secure the job as the starter.”
Landisch returned for the Ohio State game and made the start, but Aranda saw value in both players. So he went the unusual route of rotating Landisch and O’Neill on every series, and they wound up splitting the defensive plays almost evenly.
“I’ve never had to do that before,” Aranda said. “So this is a first for me. But I’ve never had two guys that are so close and so productive in terms of what their output is. I feel that’s the fairest and the best for us in terms of getting the production that we want.”
The 6-foot, 230-pound O’Neill played high school football at powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida — the same school that brought running back James White and safety Dezmen Southward to Wisconsin. But O’Neill said he was fueled, in part, by teachers and opposing coaches who told him he wouldn’t be able to succeed in Division I football, that he was too small or not good enough. Those memories have made his rise even more satisfying.
“Just to be able to kind of shove it to them and being able to actually be out there and play the way I’m playing is special,” O’Neill said.
During his Wisconsin career, O’Neill has appeared in 45 games and is tied for the sixth-most games played among Badgers on the roster. The top five have played in 46 games. His best season came in 2011 when he recorded 29 tackles, but he has nearly matched that output less than halfway through this season.
O’Neill cited his improved tackling, particularly in the open field, as a key reason for his success this season.
“He’s showed great hustle running to the football and he’s taken advantage of his opportunities,” said Landisch, who has recorded five tackles in two games. “It’s great playing with him.”
One of Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen’s favorite messages to his players is telling them not to count their reps but to make their reps count. And O’Neill has become one of the Badgers’ model examples.
“This is my last opportunity to take advantage of everything,” O’Neill said. “So I’ve just been playing my heart out and laying it on the line for all my teammates.”