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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

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Woken Up

Leon+ONeal+Jr.+tallied+164+tackles%2C+seven+forced+fumbles+and+two+interceptions+in+his+two-year+varsity+career+at+Cypress+Springs+High+School.%26%23160%3B
Photo by Courtesy

Leon O’Neal Jr. tallied 164 tackles, seven forced fumbles and two interceptions in his two-year varsity career at Cypress Springs High School. 

Drugs, fights and crimes were all things that plagued a troubled middle school-aged Leon O’Neal Jr. It wasn’t until his freshman year of high school, when he and his friend were caught burglarizing a car, that his life began to take a 180-degree turn for the better.
“I started doing things that I wasn’t taught to do,” O’Neal said. “I was on the streets and hung around friends that were just followers and I was trying to impress people and be cool. I was ambitious for all the wrong reasons.”
O’Neal was sentenced to 12 months of probation, however, the change in his behavior that followed was caused not by the legal consequences, but rather his mother’s reaction.
“It ate my mom’s heart up, having to know her only son did that,” O’Neal said. “I was already giving her problems, I had a big head and it was a lot for her. I just remember that look that she gave me and I never wanted to fail her again.”
That look served as a turning point for O’Neal, who made it his goal to get back to how he said he was raised to act. O’Neal’s pursuit of this goal was augmented with the reintroduction of his father, who had been in and out of his life.
“He pushed me and motivated me a lot,” O’Neal said. “Being with your father as a 15-year-old kid and actually being with him a lot was cool. I respected him and he helped me get through the probation and getting my life back together.”
O’Neal made strides to get back on track during his freshman year of high school and honed in on his passion for football. Talent was never an issue for O’Neal, but his off-field antics prevented his coaches at Cypress Springs High School from giving him their full trust.
“We knew the second that he stepped on campus that he was going to be pretty darn good,” Cypress Springs head football coach Rusty Rohan said. “We always knew he was going to be a really good football player, we just had to get him to focus on all of the other stuff that he needed to work on.”
O’Neal had played quarterback since he was six years old, but that changed during his freshman season after his coaches decided to see what he could do on the defensive side of the ball.
“I made a really big hit and my coaches were like, ‘That’s his position.’ The other kid’s mom started crying and tried to go fight the school,” O’Neal said. “I looked around and said, ‘Did I just do that?’ and everyone was going crazy.”
From then on, O’Neal became more passionate about football and took it upon himself to work extremely hard on both his game and transferring his energetic personality to productive things.
“He’s always been a likable kid, he’s just had a lot of anger that, at times, would show itself, but as he matured, it happened fewer and fewer times,” Rohan said. “We used to call him a wild mustang when he first got here and he eventually got into a quarter horse after that.”
O’Neal had trouble finding friends who wanted to consistently work out with him, so he usually worked out by himself. He practiced drills he found on YouTube and worked out each night before bed.
“His work ethic just sets him apart,” said Jahmarae Sheread, O’Neal’s high school teammate and best friend. “He always wants to work out and is always trying to find a different way to get better. We’ll just be chilling and he’ll be like, ‘Come on let’s do some pushups.”
O’Neal stayed at the defensive back position during his sophomore year and despite playing extremely well, per UIL rules, he was not eligible to play varsity football as he moved out of the attendance zone to live with another family member.
As his play increased so did his leadership skills. O’Neal, known for being a very vocal leader, said he developed that skill from his quarterback days.
“I grew up watching all the big-time quarterbacks that talked like Cam Newton, Jameis Winston,” O’Neal said, “I always wanted to be like that.”
O’Neal’s leadership skills were an asset to his team and his presence was felt so much that he was named a captain during his junior and senior years.
“He really turned into a role model,” said Sheread, a Texas State commit. “Every time a player drops the ball or falls down he helps them up and says, ‘Go get the next one.’ He just wants everyone to be great.”
O’Neal had a monstrous junior season and made it his mission to “Wake Em Up,” as in open the eyes of college coaches who he said had been overlooking him.
After the college offers began to pour in from across the country and O’Neal continued to make good decisions off the field, he soon realized the “Wake Em Up’ phrase could apply to anyone going through discipline problems or any type of adversity. O’Neal littered the phrase all over his Twitter feed in order to motivate his audience.
O’Neal originally committed to Texas A&M on June 2, 2017, but committed to the Kevin Sumlin regime. When Sumlin and his staff were let go, he took a step back and weighed his options. O’Neal said once Sumlin, who he had a very close relationship with, was fired, he lost a big part of his communication with the football program and felt a bit discouraged.
With a coaching change, swirling rumors, and college football juggernauts like Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Georgia in his ear, O’Neal decided it was best to take a step back and reopen his recruitment. He decommitted from A&M on Dec. 1, 2017, and announced he would wait until National Signing Day to make his final decision.
“I just didn’t know who Jimbo [Fisher] was, really,” O’Neal said. “As a player you want to know where your coaches’ values are at.”
Also factoring into O’Neal’s decision was the fact Fisher didn’t recruit him at Florida State.
“[Fisher] didn’t recruit me at Florida State, so [he had to] come here and re-recruit me,” O’Neal said. “You’ve got to give me everything you’ve got right now and tell me what you’ve got going for you instead of me just giving you a great safety like me.”
O’Neal went through a hectic second recruitment process and narrowed his final three schools down to A&M, Clemson and Oklahoma. With most of the nation’s top prospects already signed in the early signing period, coaches attentions focused almost solely on reeling in O’Neal. After taking visits to each school, O’Neal announced he would be deciding on Feb. 5, 2018.
O’Neal visited Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and A&M and on Feb. 5, there was very little intel among college football fans as to where he would ultimately sign. O’Neal announced his commitment to A&M on Feb. 5 with a recruitment video that received over 414,000 views. He then signed with the maroon and white on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. Ultimately, O’Neal said he decided to change his mind when he came back to revisit campus and was reminded of the atmosphere. O’Neal was also able to be more comfortable with the new coaching staff.
“A&M is one of those schools where you wouldn’t know just how exciting and electric it is until you actually go there,” O’Neal said. “You go there and you’re going to feel it. And it’s not just in the stadium with thousands of people screaming at you, you get the same love outside of it.”
Each recruit is different; some just commit to a school and others use their commitment to jump on the recruiting trail. Since signing, O’Neal has done the latter and has been one of the most outspoken leaders of the A&M recruitment class of 2018, both on social media and in person. He said that although he is persistent in his recruiting efforts, he doesn’t try to force a recruit into signing with A&M. Rather, he encourages them to make an informed decision on their own.
“The SEC is for big boys, and that’s what I sell to these guys,” O’Neal said. “Why would you want to leave the state when you could play in Texas in front of your family and friends? I’m not necessarily selling anything, I’m just completely honest with these young guys. I say, ‘I can give a damn if you go here or not, but I’m telling you, this school will change your life.’”
O’Neal got a chance to talk to several highly-touted recruits at the Maroon & White game on April 14 and remains confident A&M will be a national power in the recruiting field for years to come.
“The ceiling for A&M is extremely high,” O’Neal said. “It has no choice, it’s the biggest state, in Texas, SEC, we’ve got Jimbo Fisher here, we’re going to get a bunch of dogs here and it has no choice but to blow up.”
For now, O’Neal is preparing to move to College Station in June where he will begin summer practices. Sheread said he has no doubt in his mind O’Neal will make a name for himself as soon as he arrives in Aggieland.
“I would love to have him on my team,” Sheread said. “He makes everyone around him better. He’s a grinder, he works hard and he’s a leader.”
O’Neal will strap up his A&M helmet on Kyle Field for the first time on Aug. 30, where his next mission, to wake the college football world up, will begin.

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  • Leon O’Neal Jr. took his official visit to Texas A&M on Dec. 9. 

    Photo by Courtesy
  • Texas A&M signee Leon O’Neal Jr. attended the annual Maroon & White game on April 14 at Kyle Field. 

    Photo by Courtesy
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