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Kicking into the teeth of a Prairie wind can chew up and spit out many an aspiring punter or place kicker.
If one can survive the random variables that a flatland transition from the end of summer to the beginning of winter throws in the face – or at the back – of the trainee, they can be ready for just about anything the professional game can throw their way.
This is the case with Hugh O’Neill, the dual purpose kicker/punter out of the University of Alberta. The Golden Bear is ranked 11th in the CFL’s Canadian amateur scouting bureau, and is the top kicker available in the draft class.
He’s a four-time Canada West all-star from 2007 through 2010, a second team CIS all-Canadian place kicker and punter in 2007, first team CIS punter in 2009, but perhaps most importantly he was the athletic program’s academic all-Canadian in 2007/08, and maintains a GPA of slightly under 4.00.
His punting outstrips his place kicking. He averaged 41.4 yards per punt over four years, while hitting on 59 of 80 on field goals.
O’Neill credits former CFL punter/kicker Glenn Harper on his development as a punter.
“When I first came into the CIS it was on the strength of my field goal kicking, but I’ve got some very good coaching from Glenn Harper,” O’Neill said.
“His coaching was a great asset for me at the U of A for sure. My punting and accuracy has come up for sure because of him, but I’m confident with my field goal kicking as well because of the strength of my leg.”
O’Neill wasn’t exclusively a kicker when he entered the CIS out of Ross Sheppard High School as the Edmonton public school MVP. He wanted to play in the field as a linebacker but that ended in a hurry when coach Jerry Friesen realized what kind of asset he had on special teams.
Harper says that because of O’Neill’s background as a linebacker, he brings a ‘football mentality’ to the game. O’Neill is the type to get physically involved in the return game like a Jamie Boreham or Noel Prefontaine.
“He is a football player first, and I think that a comparison to Prefontaine is a fair one,” Harper said.
Harper saw O’Neill first play at the high school level and was an instant fan.
“Hugh will never go out of his way to tell you how great he is. His commitment to his school and work ethic in practice defines who he is,” he said.
The home of the Golden Bears is Foote Field on the windswept western side of the U of A campus. On one side of the field, there’s a giant berm with around 2,500 aluminum stands perched on top. On the opposite, it’s a lower profile main grandstand, with a wide open end zone to the north.
When the weather gods decide that Central Alberta should make the rapid transition to winter, the first sign is a rolling blast of arctic air that barrels into the end zone and swirls in the bowl. This makes for one of the most unpredictable and unpleasant places to kick anywhere in the game.
Whether it’s at Saskatoon’s Griffiths Stadium, Manitoba’s University Stadium or elsewhere, O’Neill says there is a learning curve when it comes to navigating the gales.
“After three or four years, you get to figure out the dynamics of how each field plays out. The last time I was at Taylor Field it seemed that I was kicking into the wind every quarter.”
With that level of understanding of the elements, and the maturity he brings, O’Neill should be able to step onto a CFL roster and perform right away the same way Rob Maver did when making the jump from the Guelph Gryphons to the Calgary Stampeders in 2010.