'Hidden gem'

JASON HILLS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:17 AM ET

Hugh O'Neill carries a big boot and he's the University of Alberta's biggest off-season recruit.

The Bears will no longer have to gamble as they've got themselves a sure bet in O'Neill.

The Bears special teams struggled last season after kicker Steve Wozimirsky quit on the eve of their 2006 fall camp to join his former junior coach Mike McLean at St. Mary's University. There were many game situations last season where the Bears were forced to gamble in third-and-long situations.

O'Neill was the Haliburton award winner as the Edmonton Public School Division's MVP, O'Neill nailed 14 of 24 field goals, including a 48-yarder and held an average of 43.7 yards per punt last season. He was also an outstanding linebacker with Ross Sheppard.

"He is absolutely the biggest addition to the football team this year," said Bears head coach Jerry Friesen.

"We've got some other players that are outstanding football players, but the impact for our football team with his ability to change field position with his kicking game gives us a huge advantage."

IMPACT PLAYER

O'Neill knows what type of impact he can have on the special teams-starved Bears, but he is handling the pressure like a grizzled veteran, not a raw rookie.

"I just try to remain consistent and I know what I can do so I just try to maintain that," said O'Neill.

"I was a little nervous last week, but once I got a few kicks in I was all settled in."

New Bears special teams coach Glenn Harper first saw O'Neill at the Senior Bowl and was instantly impressed with what he saw.

"He's got good range. Back in May was the first time I saw him and there wasn't a punt under 45 yards and he was kicking them through from 55 and 60 yards," said Harper.

"I was very impressed but I wanted to see what he could do from the angles so I took him from 15 and 20 yards out from an angle and he was able to get them through with ease."

What impresses Harper even more about his young talent is his maturity level.

"With a young kid coming in you would expect maybe some apprehension, but he works extremely hard, he's focused on becoming better each game and each practice."

NO NCAA OFFER

It's surprising the local product never received an NCAA offer from a U.S. school. He took his SATs when he was in Grade 11 and scored a perfect 800 on the math portion, while posting a 1,410 overall score.

"That was quite a surprise when it came back, but it felt good to get that kind of score," said O'Neill.

"That's why I took the test, because in Grade 11 that was more of my interest, but come Grade 12 I didn't get any calls so I took this opportunity to play football in my hometown."

COMMITTED TO PROGRAM

O'Neill is committed to the Bears program for four years, so for that long at least, the Bears won't have to worry about their kicking game.

"He's a hidden gem, no question. I truly believed I was going to get a call this off-season telling me that Hugh has gone on to an NCAA program, so we are very lucky to have him," said Friesen.

"Over the next four years he'll help us very much and he'll be able to get exposed. He's already got some looks from CFL teams.

"His draft year will be in four years and no doubt, when that time comes he'll have a lot of teams knocking on his door."


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