Manchester's O'Neill, Lebanon's Morrill form UNH's 'Granite Wall'
The Great Wall of China, Western Wall, Walls of Babylon, Berlin Wall and Walls of Troy are some of the most famous walls in the world.
This year another notable wall was erected in Durham by the football program on the campus of the University of New Hampshire.
Injuries during the preseason forced redshirt freshman Alexander Morrill of Lebanon to move from defense to offense at left guard, next to veteran left tackle Seamus O’Neill of Manchester.
The two New Hampshire players have meshed so well that they’ve re-named the left side of the line the Granite Wall.
“It works for me,” O’Neill, a Manchester Central High School graduate and UNH tri-captain, said of the moniker.
And the pairing obviously has worked for the Wildcats, who are now two wins away from a national title.
The Granite Wall and the rest of the ’Cats (10-4) will head west to Fargo, N.D., this morning looking to dethrone two-time defending Football Championship Subdivision champion North Dakota State (13-0) in a televised (ESPN2) semifinal showdown Friday at 8 p.m.
“It’s unbelievable,” said O’Neill. “As one of the seniors, one of our goals was to get over that quarterfinal hump. We started out 1-3, and it didn’t look good. But we went from being the senior class who didn’t look like they were going to make the playoffs to the senior class that won three playoff games and made it to the semifinals. It means a lot because we worked so hard. After that rough start, we kind of pulled it together and have taken it one game at a time and have excelled from there.”
O’Neill said beating the Bison on their home field will be difficult — but not impossible.
“They’re going to have a wild fan base, they’ve been there before, and they have the experience,” he said. “We need to focus on the little things. As long as we stick to our game plan, execute our plays and play our game, we should be fine.”
Everything has been just fine on the offensive line, especially on the left side since Morrill’s move from offense to defense and made his first start on Oct. 12, against the University of Rhode Island. Since then, UNH is 8-1 overall with the 6-foot, 2-inch, 299-pound Lebanon High graduate as its starting left guard.
“We had some preseason injuries on the line,” said O’Neill. “Alex stepped in and started doing a great job. The coaches saw it, I saw it, and right away we kind of had a connection. Right away the communication just caught on and, being the older guy with the knowledge and experience, I started sharing it with him. I said to him, ‘The biggest thing we could do is communicate with each other.’”
It didn’t take long for Morrill to learn the plays.
“He’s a smart kid, and sometimes he even corrects me,” said O’Neill. “He knows the plays better than I do already.”
O’Neill (6-4, 280) said Morrill has lived up to the advance notices he’d received from UNH’s coaches.
“Never saw him play at Lebanon, but I heard he was a big, strong, physical kid, and when he stepped on the field, you could see it right away,” O’Neil said of his fellow Granite Stater. “When he played defense, I noticed how strong he was going against him.”
Making the transition from defense to offense is not an easy thing to do, O’Neill said.
“It’s tough, a huge learning curve,” he said. “(Morrill) has had to learn a lot in a hurry, but, again, he’s a smart kid who caught on really fast. Having guys with lots of experience next to him like myself, (starting right tackle) Rob Bowman and (reserve lineman and Londonderry resident) Sean Ryan kind of helped Alex get into the groove. He’s matured so much that he knows the plays like no one else, and it’s just easy to play next to him.”
Morrill said O’Neill has been his mentor and role model.
“I look up to him, and I want to play my best for him during his senior year,” the younger player said.
As far as the Granite Wall goes, Morrill said, “It’s a cool name. We’re having fun with it.”
Fun for Morrill and his teammates right now is going to Fargo as the underdog looking to pull off the upset.
“We have a ‘prove it’ motto going on right now,” said Morrill. “We want to prove to ourselves, the (Colonial Athletic Association), the world that we’re the best team in the FCS.”