After operating with little fanfare in 2011 and 2012, Hugh O'Neill is finally getting some face time at a B.C. Lions training camp.
O'Neill's new full-length beard has generated buzz among players, coaches and media types alike as they wonder: What's with the new fuzz?
"There's no real reason for it," said O'Neill. "It was one of those things where we were in the off-season and I just stopped going to the barber, I guess.
"This is what the result was. It just kept getting longer. And the longer it gets, the harder it is to bring yourself to chop it off. I kept getting some good responses, so I kept it going."
O'Neill's reluctance to seek a barber has resulted in a few good-natured barbs from a teammate or two. His facial locks have been compared to bearded ones in the band ZZ Top and the TV show Duck Dynasty — among others.
"We've got Uncle Si [from Duck Dynasty] on our team this year," said No. 1 kicker Paul McCallum.
But as the pre-season approaches, O'Neill must prove that he has also grown his game sufficiently after two seasons of serving as McCallum's understudy. O'Neill and fellow 23-year-old Steven Shott are in contention to earn a second kicker spot that is slated to open up as the club asks McCallum, the CFL's oldest player at 43, to play a reduced role than in past seasons.
If all goes according to plan, McCallum will spend most of his time kicking field goals while O'Neill or Shott handles punting, kickoffs or both.
Although O'Neill has been with the Lions for the past two seasons, the Edmonton native is officially listed as a rookie, because he has yet to suit up in a regular-season game. He last played in the 2012 pre-season — and can't wait to get into another game this year.
"It's a big opportunity for me, so I really look forward to playing," he said.
Coach Mike Benevides said the Lions have created flexibility to allow for two kickers on the roster this season. Roster issues and O'Neill and Shott's abilities will ultimately determine who gets assigned to active duty.
It's possible that the club will keep both young kickers around, with one going on the active roster and the other moving to the practice roster. With Ottawa returning to the CFL next season, the Lions and all other clubs need to stockpile talent in advance of the December expansion draft that will see some players claimed.
The Lions gave Shott a chance after he revived his stalled career by undergoing back surgery in 2012. Before then, he tried to avoid surgery and rehabilitate a persistent back problem through exercise.
"I feel like I've got all my strength back," he said. "I don't feel like it's held me back at all."
The injury forced him to miss 2011 and most of 2012 with his former Okanagan Sun junior squad. Consequently, he is extremely happy to be back in action.
"It means quite a bit [to be back]," he said. "I'm actually pretty proud of myself that I persevered. I stuck with it and never gave up, so I'm pretty happy to be here. It was tough at times, for sure, but I knew that I'd get better."
Shott tried to avoid surgery by recovering through exercise and other efforts, but eventually relented.
"I was trying physio and everything like that to get it working," he said. "Honestly, it was probably about a two-year span from the time that I was injured to the time that I got better.
"Trying new things and finding out that they weren't working was pretty disappointing at times."
'Quite the beard'
A former Lions territorial protection, Shott's pro opportunity came after he attended their rookie camp in 2010. He also entered this year's camp with a beard, but it had much less growth than O'Neill's version.
"He's got quite the beard going, but I just like having a little five o'clock shadow," said Shott.
Exhibition games against Calgary on the road Friday and next week at home against Edmonton will determine whether the young kickers can emerge from McCallum's shadow.
McCallum, entering his 21st CFL season, made 44 of 52 field goals in 2012 after connecting on 50 of 53 in 2011. But punts and kick-offs add wear and tear to his leg, risking to lower his success rate on three-pointers.
The future hall of famer is "fine" with any addition that coaches and management want to make if O'Neill or Shott can punt higher and deeper or boot longer kick-offs. But the veteran is still battling to retain all three kicking duties.
"I'm not going to give [a job] to anybody," said McCallum.