January 31, 2011

E-Camp: Queen’s big man bred to play O-line

Arden Zwelling

It doesn’t take long to find Matt O’Donnell on the football field. At six-foot-ten, 340 lbs. the 21-year-old offensive tackle finds it hard to keep a low profile.

But for someone who was seemingly bred to play on the offensive line — graced with the natural gift of being an absolute behemoth — O’Donnell has a rather unique weakness.

“I really have to work on being able to block guys who are under six-foot,” O’Donnell admitted, as if anyone more than a foot shorter than him would have the courage to take a run at the giant lineman.

But for O’Donnell, the biggest man in Canadian university football, it is a reality of being so huge. Shorter linebackers and defensive backs pass rushing on a blitz can literally go under O’Donnell’s massive wingspan, an Achilles’ heel that he has spent countless hours working on.

That’s because O’Donnell will have to demonstrate his ability to block smaller players this March when he arrives in Toronto to take part in the CFL’s annual evaluation camp, the biggest combine ahead of the CFL Entry Draft in April.

“He’s got to demonstrate that he can bend his knees and ankles. He’s got to show some bend, because if he doesn’t, guys are going to get underneath him,” Pat Sheahan, O’Donnell’s coach at Queen’s University, said. “The good thing is he’s well put together so with age that’s just going to get better and better.”

Sheahan has watched O’Donnell grow, both physically and mentally, for the past four years with the Queen’s Gaels, where O’Donnell first reported as a sizable, yet green 18-year-old rookie in 2007.

O’Donnell responded well to the tutelage of Sheahan and Gaels’ offensive line coach Jeff Wood, quickly becoming one of the top linemen in the conference.

He won the Gaels’ Justin Schwieg Trophy as most improved player in 2008 before being named the team’s top lineman in 2009. Never mind the fact O’Donnell was named a first-team All-Canadian in both 2009 and 2010, and took home the OUA award for best lineman this past season.

“The coaches at Queen’s are top notch — not only offensively, but defensively,” O’Donnell said. “They’re putting out one of the best defences every year and I’m practicing against them every day. The guys I have to beat at practice are a lot better than the guys on a lot of other teams.”

O’Donnell hasn’t missed a game during his four years at Queen’s, racking up a 21-3 regular season record in his first three years before the team took a step back in 2010, finishing 3-5.

It was a humbling experience for O’Donnell, but a necessary one for a young man who had rarely experienced what it was like to lose throughout a career still in its infancy.

“It taught me a lot. You can’t always expect to join a team and just win every weekend. You have to work really hard and pour your heart and soul into it to make sure you get that win,” O’Donnell said.

At just 21 years of age, O’Donnell is still very much a developing football player, despite already having four years of college football and a 2009 Vanier Cup ring under his belt. Mentally he’s still maturing and learning how to be a leader. And there’s still the possibility that the massive lineman could have some growing to do physically as well.

Considering offensive linemen tend to improve as they age, O’Donnell’s career potential is staggering.

“As a male athlete of that size, he’s still very much developing. He’s got a lot of years to get better. He has tremendous upside,” Sheahan said.

Sheahan compared O’Donnell to legendary CFL linemen like Chris Walby and Miles Gorrell, a pair that has ten CFL all-star selections and four Grey Cups between them. Walby, a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, played 15 years in the league, twice being named the CFL’s most outstanding lineman. Gorrell played 18 years and has played the third most games of anyone in CFL history with 321.

Needless to say, just being mentioned in the same breath as those two means O’Donnell is in exclusive company.

“Guys like that, their size and physical attributes help them withstand the rigors of professional football,” Sheahan said. “I think Matt’s going to be one of those big, strong guys who play football for a long, long time.”

One primary advantage O’Donnell has heading into the evaluation camp is that he has already been facing CFL competition for years during practice with the Gaels.

O’Donnell frequently faced off with Shomari Williams — the 2010 CFL first overall draft pick — during the Gaels’ 2009 Vanier Cup winning season, along with Osie Ukwuoma, Neil Puffer and Dee Sterling — all one-time Gaels defensive linemen currently on CFL rosters.

O’Donnell will take that experience and try to impress a bevy of CFL coaches and scouts in Toronto where he will be the largest man to ever take part in the evaluation camp.

“I’ll definitely be nervous but I’m also excited to go up against the best talent in Canada and really put on a show for the scouts and the teams,” O’Donnell said.

Of course, O’Donnell has also been attracting some attention south of the border. He was one of just two Canadians chosen to participate in the East-West Shrine Game in Orlando, Florida earlier this month, a showcase of the top college football talent in North America.

The impression O’Donnell had on the American scouts remains to be seen. He was at an inherent disadvantage, however, having not played football in almost three months. The majority of his competition, Americans from NCAA schools, had played in bowl games as recently as a week or two before the Shrine Game.

“I was a little bit rusty,” O’Donnell admitted. “I tried not to think about it. I want to be able to just snap on the pads at anytime and be in game mode, ready to play.”

But despite the attention from both sides of the 49th parallel, O’Donnell is doing his best to keep everything in perspective.

“I just love playing football so I’ll play wherever as long as I can keep playing,” he said.