Cody O’Connell, a Washington State backup a year ago, will start at left guard in the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl against Minnesota as one of the best offensive linemen in the country — and the second unanimous All-American in WSU history.
A year ago, Cody O’Connell was an anonymous backup offensive lineman who played mostly on special teams but had not been on the field for an offensive snap in a Washington State football game.
Now, O’Connell, a redshirt junior, will start at left guard for the Cougars in their Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl game against Minnesota as one of the best offensive linemen in the country and the second unanimous All-American in WSU football history.
His meteoric rise has been a pleasant surprise for Cougars fans who wondered who would replace steady, dependable three-year starter Gunnar Eklund at left guard this season.
WSU offensive-line coach Clay McGuire’s first glimpse of the immense potential lurking within O’Connell’s immense 6-foot-8, 354-pound frame came around this time last year, when O’Connell was a backup guard who hadn’t managed to crack the Cougars’ starting lineup.
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Eklund, Washington State’s starting left guard in 2015, sat out the first two weeks of bowl practices with a shoulder injury serious enough that McGuire said he had a 50-50 shot of playing in the Sun Bowl.
With Eklund out, O’Connell got all the reps at left guard with the first-team offensive line.
“Cody played really well,” McGuire said. “He got to be the starting left guard for two weeks. It was a coin flip of whether Gunnar could go. And I thought then, ‘If Gunnar doesn’t play, it’s going to be OK.’ ”
Eklund recovered in time to play, and O’Connell went back to the bench. But not for long. The Wenatchee native entered spring ball as the man to beat at left guard and never relinquished his hold on the position.
O’Connell finished the regular season as one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy – which goes to the nation’s best interior lineman – and this month became the only WSU player other than kicker Jason Hanson (in 1989) to earn unanimous All-America honors.
Not bad for a first-year starter.
“When he became ‘The Guy,’ when (the position) was his to lose, he elevated his play,” McGuire said. “(Since) he came out, he’s been focused. When you do that and add fundamentals with talent and an understanding for what he’s doing, and the ability to play fast, you’re like, ‘Wow, where did he come from?’ All the reps that have been poured into him, you see it now.”
So how, precisely, did Cody O’Connell go from relative obscurity to offensive-line sensation seemingly overnight?
Ask anyone from Wenatchee to describe Cody, and you get an array of adjectives for the word “large.”
“He’s a mountain of a person,” said Jeff Christoferson, offensive coordinator during Cody’s junior and senior years at Wenatchee High.
“Ginormous,” said Dave Jagla, who coaches the linemen at Wenatchee High, while O’Connell’s father, Jay, calls his son “a big teddy bear.”
Cody never really had a growth spurt because he never really stopped growing. He was born 24 inches long and outgrew his cradle within a month.
At age 2, his mother, Kathy O’Connell, says people routinely mistook her son for a 4-year-old, and she frequently fielded irritating questions from strangers as to why her “4-year-old” could not string full sentences together and was still babbling.
Jay recalls a big argument with the president of the local Pee Wee football league, who wanted to put his 136-pound, 8-year-old son on a team with the 13-year-old boys.
Kathy tells a story about how Scott Devereaux, the varsity football coach at Wenatchee High, once chewed out Cody — then an eighth-grader — for standing around and watching his football team at practice because he mistook the tall, strapping 6-footer on the sideline for one of his players.
But nestled within this mountain of a man-child was a softhearted soul.
“The big joke with Cody is that he’s happiest playing with elementary-school kids. He’s got the sweetest spirit in the world,” Christoferson said. “I used to take the (football team) to the children’s hospital. Cody would go over, and he’s like a jungle gym for those kids. You’d find him tucked away in one of the rooms visiting with some sick girl and playing house.
“He’s the largest man you’ll ever see, and the next minute, he’s playing cars or whatever with an 8-year-old kid.”
Cody’s affinity for children is rooted in his own childhood. For years, Kathy ran a day care out of the family home, and she noticed early that her son had a special way with kids.
“I always ended up with kids in the system, kids who were being raised by grandparents or kids whom people didn’t want,” Kathy said. “We had a little girl who came to us who had an attachment disorder because she didn’t get to bond with her mom, who was in the hospital and chronically ill.
“Whenever we would change this girl’s diaper, she’d let out this bloodcurdling scream. Cody would come over and put his hand on her, and she’d calm right down.”
That kid-friendly spirit, coupled with a lifetime spent trying to play gentle with peers half his size, meant Cody had to be reprogrammed when it came time to play football.
“He’s a kid who, his whole life, he’s been told to be careful and not hurt people because he’s so big,” said Jagla, Cody’s high-school position coach. “It took him awhile to develop the maturity to dominate people.”
Hampered by a knee injury during his sophomore season, Cody didn’t start for Wenatchee until his junior year. His junior film was pretty good, says WSU’s McGuire, but the eye test sealed the deal.
At the sight of O’Connell’s hulking 6-foot-8, 300-pound frame standing in the foyer of Bohler Gym during junior day in the winter of 2012, McGuire offered the giant a scholarship on the spot.
A few months later, Cody and his parents drove from Wenatchee to Pullman just so he could commit to WSU coach Mike Leach in person.
Bringing out the beast
From the beginning, it was clear Cody wasn’t your average lumbering, big kid with two left feet.
“Cody has some real athleticism. He’s a mountain of a person, but he’s incredibly athletic for being that big,” said Christoferson. “He’s not sluggish at all. For him, it was always about his temperament. “
The challenge, then, was to find a way to maximize Cody’s athleticism by coaxing a mean streak out of the gentle giant.
Going into Cody’s senior year in 2012, his muse came in the form of another 6-foot-7 goliath.
Trey Adams, UW’s current starting left guard, was two years behind O’Connell at Wenatchee.
“Cody’s senior year, Trey Adams was a sophomore, and he was a big, stumbling moose,” Christoferson said. “I’d put Trey with Cody to toughen him up and to push Cody, and that really sparked something in Cody. He started throwing Trey around like a rag doll. That was good for me. It fired Trey up, and it pushed Cody, too. Something switched in him.”
The change was evident from the first play of O’Connell’s senior season.
“The first block of the year, he took the kid off the field and into the fence on our home field,” Christoferson said. “It was awesome. He’d figured it out. His senior year, he started enjoying what he could do.
“I could show you film where he would hit a linebacker and throw them into the safety. It’s like Cody flicks him with his hand and a 200-pound kid goes flying in the air. I think he started enjoying that and knowing that he was not hurting anybody but he could let go and just play.”
But Cody’s senior season ended prematurely when he tore his ACL in the fifth game. The injury required surgery and Cody spent the next six months rehabbing.
To get back in shape, he went out for track and field that spring and, under Christoferson’s tutelage, won the 2013 state shot-put title with a throw of 59 feet, 9¾ inches.
Christoferson believes that if football didn’t work out for Cody, he could have made a name for himself as a collegiate-level shot-putter.
Biding his time
When you evaluate O’Connell’s body of work this season, it seems almost silly to think he waited three years to get on the field. Even McGuire acknowledges this.
“Looking back, we probably could have played him last year,” McGuire said. “I think if he would have played last year, he probably would have been a good player. We could have put him in there at guard in the rotation and he would have been fine.”
But seven of WSU’s games in 2015 were decided by one score, and the Cougars won six of these close encounters with such a razor-thin margin for error that the coaches erred on the side of experience all season long.
Eklund, while 50 pounds lighter and less physically gifted than O’Connell, was a three-year starter at left guard who’d proved his steadiness under fire. So he played in 2015, while Cody sat and waited for his opportunity.
Now, he’s finally being rewarded for his patience.
“It’s clicked for him,” McGuire said. “And when it clicked, it made a huge difference for us. I knew he had the ability to play like this, but the consistency he’s showed, that’s the hardest thing – going 12 weeks in a row and being this good.”
The game has slowed down for Cody. But more importantly, he’s learned how to mentally flip the switch and tap into what Christoferson calls his “giant strength.” Then, he lets his body take over.
“It starts with his feet and his tree-trunk arms and hands. When he’s sitting in position, he’s got a great foundation. It’s like running into a brick wall,” Jagla said. “You can’t go through him. He’s not gonna get moved. And he’s got great feet, so you can’t get past him. He’s just the perfect offensive lineman.”
That’s why the kid from Wenatchee who grew up being called, “Sasquatch,” “Tree,” “Bush” and “Bubba” has made a new name for himself at WSU.
They call him “The Continent” now – solid, imposing and unmovable except in the event of a natural disaster.
But he’ll usually still answer to “Cody.”