In Saturday night’s practice under the lights at TCO Performance Center, Minnesota Vikings rookie Brian O’Neill had several impressive first-team reps in which he either slowed down a skilled pass rusher or showed his quickness and athleticism.
But on one particular play, he was late getting his hands in position and Brian Robison promptly smacked them out of the way en route to a (non-contact) sack.
That has been the story of camp for O’Neill as he learns on the job while trying to make a push for the starting right tackle position. The former Pitt standout has learned that one of the biggest adaptations rookies have to make in NFL training camp is dealing with those bad moments.
“Coming in that’s one of the first five things Pat Elflein ever told me,” O’Neill said Tuesday. “I was talking to him about the biggest differences. He said, ‘you probably didn’t get beat in college, especially in practice. My biggest thing here was, I’m going to get beat, but in camp that’s the place for it. Take it, learn from it and get better from it. You’re still going to get beat again tomorrow and the next day, but being able to take that realize that he’s not just beating you, he’s beating other guys too.’”
The key to handling losses?
“Being able to understand that this is our first seven days, so being able to constantly build so it’s better Day 10 than it was Day 9, better Day 11 than it was Day 10,” O’Neill said. “Try to keep things in perspective and not get caught up on how you got beat and got yelled at.”
Over the first week-plus, O’Neill has split first-team reps with Rashod Hill, who is listed as the team’s starting right tackle on the unofficial depth chart released on Tuesday. That means routinely going up against star pass rusher Danielle Hunter.
“Danielle Hunter is really good,” he said emphatically. “Being able to go against a guy like that is only going to help me — and obviously the guys inside are no joke either. As a young player coming in, you can’t really do anything but appreciate having an opportunity like that because on Saturday [against Denver] we’re going to see some talent players. Being able to see it every day, our goal is to make practice harder than the games are going to be. Hopefully it will make the transition to the games a little smoother.”
The learning curve is steep at tackle, not only because of the athleticism of edge rushers like Hunter, who is 6-foot-5 and ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, but because the league’s best defensive ends have a far better understanding of the game than college rushers. They know what’s going to happen before it happens.
“[Hunter] always has a plan, so whatever you give him he’s going to have a plan to counter that and he’s always going to switch it up on you, so you can’t guess,” O’Neill said. “If you get caught guessing with a guy that talented you’re going to get put in a bad spot. Trying to be as consistent with your technique as possible against a guy like that is really the battle.”
The battles between the Vikings’ second-rounder and Hunter make for good theatre. They are simply two of the best pure athletes at their positions. O’Neill’s calling card coming into the NFL was his athletic profile, which ranked among the best in the entire 2018 draft. But he knows that his quickness won’t matter if he doesn’t first understand where he’s supposed to be on each play.
“Everything happens a lot faster, whether it’s the linebacker hitting the gap or edge rusher realizing you got him beat and he’s going to do a counter, those reactions happen a lot quicker, so you just have to be on top of your game that much more,” O’Neill said. “One thing that helps: If you know your assignment you can just kind of play ball. If you’re questionable on where to go, how you’re getting there is going to be in question as well. That’s one thing I’ve tried to give myself as much of an advantage as I can just because it doesn’t involve anything to just know where I’m going.”
While daily one-on-ones with the likes of Robison and Hunter help push O’Neill the most in camp, the 22-year-old has also been closely studying the O-line’s leader (and team captain) Riley Reiff.
“The fact that every day there’s a job to do and you know every day 71 [Riley Reiff] is doing his job, it’s something I’m going to try to emulate as much as possible,” O’Neill said. “Is 75 doing his job every single time to help this team win? Every single day, every single lift, every single walkthrough, every meeting, [Reiff] is engaged, he’s active, he’s open to rookies asking questions…he’s always there, he’s always on.”
As the Vikings head to Denver to kick off their preseason schedule, O’Neill appears to have made a strong first impression. If he performs well in preseason games, there is an outside chance he could win the job despite questions about whether he is strong enough to handle the starting load as a rookie. With Dalvin Cook returning and an emphasis on the run and screen game, O’Neill’s speed may give him a leg up in the competition for right tackle.
“He’s getting better every day,” offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. “Watch him get to the second level today. He gets there with ease. Now the thing he needs to keep working on is his anchor, his hands, and his angles in pass protection. You see a guy get to the second level like him, it’s pretty special.”