PULLMAN — It was a rare and notable occasion in 2013 when Cody O’Connell arrived at Washington State’s Junior Day: Nobody knew who he was.
See, anonymity is pretty rare for O’Connell, and not just because at 6-foot-8, 350 pounds he is the most memorable person overlooking any crowd he encounters.
O’Connell’s dad, Jay, is a firefighter back home in Wenatchee, and there is not a firehouse in Chelan County where they do not remember the young giant who, along with his sister Kayla, used to bring meals out to the firefighters on the line.
His mother, Kathy, advocates for children in family court, many of whom took quickly to the soft-spoken bear she would occasionally bring to work.
“He’s like a big jungle gym to them, and he’s just a kind-natured person in general,” Kathy O’Connell said.
But the folks running the event at WSU, an annual gathering of rising seniors who the Cougars coaches think might be worth recruiting, had no idea who O’Connell was. He forgot to tell anybody he was coming.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to RSVP,” O’Connell said. “It was kind of small print down at the bottom. I was just excited I got offered to come to Junior Day.”
While Cody was busy sorting out his identity, offensive line coach Clay McGuire was inside the football offices with recruiting coordinator Dave Emerick trying to determine whether or not the prospect outside was who he claimed to be.
“We were watching his tape, and it said he was 6-foot-7, 290 pounds or something like that,” McGuire said. “I thought he moved well enough, and told Emerick ‘If this kid is actually 6-foot-7, we are going to offer him.’ He just happened to be at Junior Day that day, and he was bigger than 6-foot-7.”
The Cougars offered him that very day, the first offensive lineman they offered a scholarship to in new coach Mike Leach’s first recruiting class. Of course, even the offer came with some confusion.
“I didn’t catch that I was being offered but my dad did. It was Leach talking and he was going through a story, and apparently offered me but went back to a story and so I was kind of caught up in the story, trying to figure it all out because Leach goes on tangents,” O’Connell said. “So it was my first time talking with Leach and I didn’t really know what to expect. I wasn’t really expecting a story, followed by an offer, followed by a story. I didn’t catch it, but my dad was quicker than I was.”
Cody and Jay briefly returned to Leach’s office after leaving to confirm that, yes, a scholarship had been offered somewhere in all that yarn-spinning, and later that spring O’Connell told the coaches he would accept the offer.
And after three years of waiting his turn, partially because of injuries and partially because of WSU’s experienced depth at the guard positions, O’Connell is starting to get some notoriety again.
When O’Connell first began playing Pop Warner Football at 8 years old, it took about two weeks for him to win the starting center position away from a kid who had owned it for a couple years.
At WSU, cracking the starting lineup took a little longer for O’Connell, who became a starter in this, his redshirt junior season.
“Last year, Cody was probably good enough to play,” McGuire said. “Gunnar Eklund was kind of the clear-cut leader of that group in the locker room and that’s who Cody was behind. From a talent standpoint, we’re replacing talent with more talent. You just never know how it’s going to go.”
So far, it’s gone extremely well.
After each WSU win, a Bone Award is given to the top performing offensive lineman, and O’Connell has received three of the four awarded so far in 2016.
O’Connell was also named to CBS Sports’ Midseason All-America team, one of just four Pac-12 players to make the cut and the only lineman on offense or defense.
The new fame does not seem to mean much to O’Connell, who has never been one to read, or pass along, his own clippings.
The family accountant had to let Kathy know that Cody was winning the shot put in track meets his senior year. He would go on to win the State 4A championship and throw a best attempt of 62 feet that year.
(An aside: When we say throw, we literally mean he chucks the 12-pound metal ball from a standing position instead of the spinning-crouch preferred by just about every other successful shot putter.)
But O’Connell’s performance has been critical to the Cougars, who have won four consecutive games in large part because of how dominant the offensive line has been. Pro Football Focus ranks WSU’s offensive line No. 2 in the nation, and evidence abounds that O’Connell is the unit’s best player.
The new-found running game that has fans so excited? Those fans can thank O’Connell and his teammates on the offensive line. Doesn’t it seem like Luke Falk is playing better, and that the receivers are making more plays downfield?
That’s because the offensive line is giving Falk so much time to throw.
WSU had to replace two three-year starters on the left side of its offensive line after last season, Eklund and Joe Dahl, players who were well-known in WSU circles thanks to their success and longevity.
O’Connell may only be a household name in Wenatchee. But if he can continue his high level of play, it won’t just be kids and firefighters who recognize the largest Cougar around.