Lewiston High School linebacker Sean O’Donnell.
LEWISTON — Playing football is often compared to experiencing a series of car crashes. If that is the case, Lewiston’s 5-foot-10, 175-pound linebacker Sean O’Donnell has gone from colliding mostly with his fellow Ford Mustangs the past two years to running into Mack trucks this year.
When he’s not leaving them in the dust, that is.
O’Donnell’s move from cornerback, where he started the last two years, to outside linebacker for his senior season is keeping opposing quarterbacks awake late at night and is one of the reasons the Blue Devils are 3-1.
O’Donnell already has six quarterback sacks this year, double the number of his closest pursuers among Class A North leaders. He also ranks third in the league in tackles, leading the Blue Devils in that category with 34.
Not bad for a three-year starter who was used to back-pedaling against receivers who were mostly his size but now has to find a way around offensive linemen who sometimes outweigh him by as much as 100 pounds.
Lewiston defensive coordinator Spencer Emerson made the position change in the offseason, essentially having former-linebacker-now-corner Brock Belanger switch spots with O’Donnell. O’Donnell, who had played defensive back his entire career, admits he didn’t immediately embrace the radical shift in roles.
“I was a little iffy about (the position change) at first,” O’Donnell said. “But Coach (Emerson) coached me up. He taught me technique, footwork, being able to read the plays.”
“It’s a lot more action than being at corner, that’s for sure,” he added.
O’Donnell plays the rover position, which means he plays the wide side of the field depending on which hash mark the ball is placed.
“My job is to contain. I’m not letting anything, no matter what, get outside of me,” he said. “I’m always keeping my outside shoulder free so nothing can get outside of me.”
O’Donnell’s closing speed makes it difficult for ball-carriers to turn the corner outside, where their speed can be most effective.
“It’s not just him getting after the quarterback,” Lewiston head coach Bruce Nicholas said. “If teams try a jet sweep or toss to his side, good luck.”
O’Donnell also has pass coverage responsibilities, usually matched up with tight ends or running backs. Windham found out that he still has his cornerback instincts when he picked off a pass earlier this year.
But being able to go after the quarterback is probably his favorite part of his new assignment.
“It’s fun. I love it when they come my way, that’s for sure,” he said. “We always get fired up when one of us gets a sack.”
Since he is usually paired up with linemen much bigger than him, O’Donnell has to use speed, leverage, footwork and hand-fighting techniques to get to the quarterback.
“There are some big folks, for sure, but it’s good. It feels good,” O’Donnell said. “I worked out very hard. As soon as football season ended last year, I was in the weight room until August.”
O’Donnell is part of a linebacker corps, along with Jeremy Madore, Dominick Colon and Connor Kaplinger, that has been a key to Lewiston’s strong defensive play. The whole team seems to feed off of the big plays that have come from a unit that is allowing just 12 points per game.
“It’s really been from our first game, when we scored two defensive touchdowns against South Portland,” Nicholas said. “It really helps when I’m calling the offense while knowing what our defense can do.”
“We have a lot of players on our defense that started as sophomores (who are now juniors and seniors), so we have a lot of experience,” O’Donnell said. “I think that’s one of the big reasons why we’re as good as we are this year.”
South Portland’s Spencer Houlette, right, tries to get away from Lewiston’s Sean O’Donnell during their game at Bates College in Lewiston earlier this month.