It wasn’t a GNC protein bar or rare animal meat that Pitt redshirt freshman Brian O’Neill credited as a staple of his weight-gaining regimen this offseason. Instead, the first of six meals he ate every day was much more mundane.
“I’d wake up at about 3:30 in the morning and eat two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” O’Neill said.
The early wake-and-make-two-PB&J’s routine wasn’t for naught. Thanks to the increased diet and continued offseason conditioning, O’Neill leapt from 260 to 293 pounds in his quest to transition from a redshirted tight end to a starting offensive tackle.
O’Neill had never played offensive line. He served as a tight end in high school in Wilmington, Delaware, with former head coach Paul Chryst recruiting him to play the same position at Pitt.
“We watched him play. We watched him move around. We saw an in-line blocking tight end that could be a successful tight end and very good at what he does. But we think we have an exceptional kid that could be an exceptional offensive tackle.”
But after starting right tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith went down for the year with a season-ending knee injury in July, Pitt coaches looked to the 6-foot-6 O’Neill as an ideal candidate to provide some depth.
“Everyone was pretty hurting about Jaryd,” O’Neill said. “I knew that the void needed to be filled.”
O’Neill said head coach Pat Narduzzi approached him during a spring practice, asking him about a potential switch to the offensive line. To ensure a successful transition, both the coaches and O’Neill had to be on board, and O’Neill agreed to Narduzzi’s proposal the next day.
“The coaches didn’t force me to do anything,” O’Neill said. “We made a mutual decision that this was what was the best for the team, and I haven’t looked back since.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said the move was overdue.
“We thought about it for a long time,” Chaney said. “We watched him play. We watched him move around. We saw an in-line blocking tight end that could be a successful tight end and very good at what he does. But we think we have an exceptional kid that could be an exceptional offensive tackle.”
O’Neill said the weight gain took six to seven weeks. After the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, O’Neill would eat big breakfasts of whatever was available at Pitt’s UPMC Sports Performance Complex.
And after breakfest, it was time for brunch.
“If there was ever a time I was hungry, that meant I had to have food in my mouth,” O’Neill said.
It wasn’t all dietary changes for O’Neill, though.
“I spent a little extra time in the weight room and a little extra time at the training table,” he said.
For O’Neill, the physical rigors of the move weren’t nearly as challenging as the mental ones.
“I think I needed to learn a lot more conceptually,” he said. “There’s a lot more thinking required. It’s a lot more intellectual. I’ve had to ramp up my actual knowledge of the entire offense, not just knowing my assignment.”
O’Neill said junior tackle Adam Bisnowaty aided him to develop mentally. Bisnowaty said the redshirt freshman was ready to learn.
“Brian has been a great guy to work with,” Bisnowaty said. “He looks like a different guy. He gained a lot of weight. He’s moving more weight. He looks good out there.”
When Pitt released its two-deep on Monday, O’Neill was listed as a starter along with Bisnowaty, as Narduzzi pegged him at right tackle.
The Panthers’ head coach said he understands the fresh lineman will have some growing pains — but that is part of the plan.
“He’s going to get better as the year goes on,” Narduzzi said. “Are you going to see a polished Brian O’Neill in the first game? Probably not, but he’s only going to keep getting better.”
And with that development, Narduzzi said O’Neill’s potential is high enough that he could find himself working on Sundays in his next profession.
“He’s going to be a tremendous offensive tackle in the ACC conference,” Narduzzi said. “And, in my opinion, if he keeps going like he is, [he’ll play] at the next level.”