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October 3, 2012
DEXTER, Ga. -- Going into his junior season, West Laurens (Dexter, Ga.) linebacker Johnny O'Neal was anything but settled.
The four-star prospect was starting his third year with his third different head coach, and didn't know what to expect.
But in stepped Stacey Nobles, and the rest is history.
"Before last year, it was tough," O'Neal said. "I knew I had worked hard and schools were looking at me, but I didn't know what to expect. Then Coach Nobles came in and I feel like I have gotten so much better as a player since he has been here.
According to Nobles, he doesn't believe he had anything to do with the smooth transition. All of that credit goes to his U.S. Army All-American linebacker.
"It is a blessing to coach a guy like Johnny," Nobles said. "Before I got here this program has been through a lot of instability and not just with the coaching staff, but guys like Johnny are just a blessing.
"He is in here all the time. He never complains. He works hard in the weight room, and does everything we coach him to do. He is a great player."
While everything changed with the arrival of Nobles in Dexter, the two previous coaching changes made for a tough couple of years for the Rivals250 linebacker.
Growing up in a small town, however, with all of the support of a tight-knit community helped O'Neal grow and develop as a player and a person.
"I prefer a small town and that is why. It was always good to have people who you knew were pulling for you and happy for you," O'Neal said. "It has made me stronger mentally and physically to have that kind of support."
O'Neal, who is committed to Georgia, has steadily improved under Nobles, but the West Laurens coach believes that the best is yet to come.
"The scary thing is that he isn't as good as he can be," said Nobles. "He is still a little tight in his hips and we know that when he gets more flexible, he is going to be faster and more explosive. That is the scary thing."
After the 2012 season, Georgia graduates three inside linebackers, and made the position a top priority for the 2013 signing class.
O'Neal gave the Bulldogs their first commitment at the position, and Nobles won't be at all surprised to turn on the television next fall and see his star linebacker making plays in the SEC.
"That is just the kind of player he is," Nobles said. "He is going to go in there and work hard and get coached up. I could definitely see him lining up and playing for them as a freshman for sure."
As for O'Neal, he has yet to look that far down the road and is still focused on his team's season. He does, however, believe that being selected as an U.S. Army All-American is one of the highest honors a high school player can receive.
"Well, I have worked really hard to get here, so that makes it sweeter," he said. "Plus it is an honor to play for those that serve our country, really. It is a big honor. It is a chance to go do some big things and do some things that I have never done before, so I'm excited."