After Columbus East lost three-year starting middle linebacker Sam Dwenger to graduation, some Olympians fans thought T.C. O’Neal might take over that spot.

O’Neal started at weakside linebacker last season and finished second on the team with 92 tackles. But at only 165 pounds, East coach Bob Gaddis felt he was better suited to stay on the outside than move to the middle.

“He’s very active,” Gaddis said. “He brings it from the edge very well. People have to account for him in their blocking schemes. We didn’t want to put him someplace that would take away his aggressiveness because when you’re on the edge, there’s one guy that can block you. In the middle, there’s a lot of guys that can block you.”

This season, not many people have been able to block O’Neal. The senior ranks second on the Class 5A No. 4 Olympians with 57 tackles, including a team-high 6½ tackles for losses.

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O’Neal, who also plays on East’s kickoff, punt block, extra point block and punt return teams, has two forced fumbles and a blocked punt this season.

“He’s been a solid player for us for the last couple of years,” Gaddis said. “He brings a lot of intensity and plays hard. He was a pretty good player as a junior, and he’s lived up to what we thought he could do for us. He knows what it takes to win the big games, so it’s nice to have him out there.”

O’Neal has put up big numbers despite missing all or most of three games. He sat out the Olympians’ win against Jennings County with an injury and was ejected after a second-quarter skirmish in the regular-season finale at Bedford North Lawrence. That caused him to have to sit out East’s first-round sectional upset at 5A No. 2 New Palestine.

Despite being on the sidelines for that game, O’Neal called the victory the highlight of the season.

“It was pretty tough,” O’Neal said. “The ride up there was the worst part, knowing I wasn’t going to play. But I knew my teammates would get it done.”

Friday night, O’Neal was back on the field for the Olympians. He made a pair of tackles in a 49-9 sectional semifinal win against Martinsville.

“It felt just to be back playing,” O’Neal said. “It kind of (was rough) sitting out a week, but that what happens.”

This year has been a little different for O’Neal in at least one way. The past three years, he’s had his brother Steven to lean on.

Steven O’Neal, who was East’s starting running back last season, is now playing at Marshall. T.C. said he talks to Steven about every day.

“It’s been a lot different with him not being out here just because I always had somebody to go home with and talk about what we did in practice,” T.C. O’Neal said.

T.C. O’Neal said he hasn’t decided if he will play college football himself, but that he likely would if the opportunity presents itself.

For now, O’Neal is poised to help lead East on a deep tournament run. The journey continues Friday with a sectional final tilt at home against Whiteland.

“I think we have really good chances,” O’Neal said. “We just need to take every opponent that we’re coming up on seriously and respect them. We just want to be the best we can be.”

The O'Neal file

Name: T.C. O’Neal

School: Columbus East

Year: Senior

Position: Linebacker

Height: 6-foot-1

Weight: 165

Sports: Football, track and field

Favorite sport: Football

Favorite athlete: Floyd Mayweather

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.