Hugh O’Neill will put himself in Paul McCallum’s shoes, at least for a little while.
O’Neill, the B.C. Lions second-year backup kicker, will get some rare game action Wednesday as the defending Grey Cup champions commence the 2012 CFL pre-season against the Saskatchewan Roughriders at BC Place Stadium. McCallum will play the first quarter and O’Neill will take over during the last three.
This marks the first time O’Neill will kick in a game since he suited up as a rookie in the 2011 exhibition campaign. The 22-year-old Edmonton native spent all of last season watching McCallum from the sidelines during home games and on TV during road games.
But he is not complaining about his lack of playing time while serving as the legendary McCallum’s understudy.
“It’s a great situation for me and a great spot, where I can really learn from the best and just get better myself and really look to improve my consistency for the time when I am needed as well,” O’Neill said.
The University of Alberta product serves as an important safety valve in case 40-year-old McCallum, who was the league’s most outstanding special teams player last season, suffers an injury or comes down with an unlikely case of inconsistency. O’Neill also provides another leg in workouts, limiting wear and tear on McCallum’s limb.
The Lions, who take a long-term view on developing kickers, did not bring another hopeful into training camp in Kamloops, B.C., to push O’Neill. He has mainly had to challenge himself.
“It’s a very individual sport where I’m at,” O’Neill said. “Last year, I was working on a few things, and this year, I’m mostly just trying to improve my own game. This camp gives you lots of time to work on your own thing and just try and get better.”
O’Neill, a former soccer player, got into football when he was 10 after his buddies signed up to play in a community league in the Alberta capital. Having no siblings, he felt suited for the “socially awkward role” of a kicker.
O’Neill, who is the Golden Bears’ all-time field-goal leader with 55, might have to wait a long time to become a CFL regular. The Lions drafted him in the second round of the 2011 CFL draft and then traded backup kicker Sean Whyte to the Montreal Alouettes after he mostly waited and watched for a total of four seasons in the B.C. organization.
O’Neill says he is in “no rush” as he learns his craft under McCallum.
“That’s part of the game for a kicker anyway,” O’Neill said. “It’s a lot of sitting around and waiting. Even if you are starting, it’s just all a mental game.”
While he does not have to worry about job security, other Lion hopefuls will have their final opportunities to impress new coach Mike Benevides against the Riders. Benevides is intent on giving veterans ample playing time in the pre-season as part of the effort to avoid another 0-5 start that befell the Lions before their improbable run from worst to first in 2011.
“We have to get this thing turned around somehow,” Benevides said.
The Lions coach will limit starting quarterback Travis Lulay’s activity and give new No. 2 Mike Reilly considerable action as he prepares to take over the backup role from Jarious Jackson, who was released in the off-season and signed as a free agent with Toronto.
Reilly, a 27-year-old Kennewick, Wash., native who joined the Lions early in the 2010 season after bouncing around the NFL, will also handle short-yardage situations and hold on field goals — a role he has not held regularly since high school. Jackson performed both duties last season.
Rookie quarterback Thomas DeMarco, an Old Dominion alumnus who has taken over the No. 3 role from the released Corey Leonard, will also get a fair amount of time behind centre.
Meanwhile, the game will pose a major test for defensive linemen as Benevides looks to determine a six-player rotation and others who will stay because of special-teams needs. Rookie defensive end Jabar Westerman, the club’s top 2012 draft choice out of Eastern Michigan who appears to have one spot locked up, will make his Lions debut.
Kick and punt returners, notably veteran Tim Brown, who doubles as a running back, will also receive severe scrutiny from the new B.C. coach.
Notes: New Saskatchewan coach Corey Chamblin will guide the Roughriders in a game for the first time. ... Riders defensive end O’Dell Willis will not play because he remains on team probation after being charged with driving under the influence on April 9 in an Atlanta suburb.