(Note: Last in a series previewing the Buffs position-by-position during training camp. Today: Special teams.)
BOULDER - By most accounts, Darragh O'Neill shouldn't be here - not preparing to punt in his first organized football game ever when Colorado opens at Hawai'i, but here . . . upright, breathing, showing a pulse.
O'Neill was born 20 years ago in Cork, Ireland's third-largest and southern-most city. That he took an interest in punting about a year ago and now is CU's starter is remarkable enough; that he will celebrate his 21st birthday on Dec. 21 is very close to miraculous.
With jobs scarce in Cork, Colm O'Neill - Darragh's father - brought his family to America, targeting a masters in business administration at the University of Michigan as his path to launching a career as a restaurateur. The O'Neills initially settled in Ann Arbor, Mich., before relocating to Boulder a decade ago.
Colm came to this country with his wife and six children - there are two girls and Darragh is the oldest of four boys - and he now is the co-owner of a pair of traditional Irish pubs, Conor O'Neill's, in Ann Arbor and Boulder
SPECIAL TEAMS PREVIEW
Darragh O'Neill and Will Oliver are very different teammates from different worlds. But they share a common bond: Neither has been to Hawai'i, and both will make the college debuts there in the same game.
Oliver, a freshman from Santa Monica, Calif., won the placekicking job early in camp, spending the rest of August sharpening his kicking and getting mentally ready for Game One.
Since being named the starter, Oliver appears to have become more focused and consistent, which he attributes to pressure of a different sort.
"You know you're kicking for a lot of people, and you've always got someone behind you coming for you," he said. "It's sort of like you got there, but you've got a long way to go to keep going. It's about being not being satisfied.
"It gave me a lot more confidence and coach Embree has been real good about being supportive. I've gone in and talked to him a couple of times. He's talked to me about just relaxing and having a good time with it - and trusting myself. It seems kind of dumb that anyone would say that, but it's really helped confidence-wise."
Now, adds Oliver, he's become very aware that he has "something to lose. In the beginning I had nothing to lose. I'm here and have been given a task and I'm trying to do it the best I can."
With O'Neill and Oliver, special teams coach J.D. Brookhart finds himself in the somewhat rare position of utilizing a pair of first-year kickers. Regardless of their class or experience, he says, "There's going to be hiccups along the way. That's part of the game. But you've got to keep them to a minimum and they've got to come through when we need them. That's what we're asking them to do. We've put them in that environment to see how they'll handle it - and that's kind of why they are where they are."
Oliver, said Brookhart, endured one bad day during preseason camp, that being the second day the Buffs were on the field. "Beyond that, he's been consistent. His off days are not bad."
At other special teams spots, Brookhart will "go situational" with his punt returners, utilizing Rodney Stewart, Paul Richardson, Keenan Canty and D.D. Goodson at various times. His kickoff return trio will be Arthur Jaffee, Brian Lockridge and Tony Jones.
Ryan Iverson returns for his second season as a short and long snapper, while Justin Gorman replaces Scotty McKnight as the holder. Brookhart calls Iverson a better-than-average snapper: "He's got a couple of things going for him - tremendous ball speed and his athleticism from a coverage standpoint. Things have changed that way; you don't have to have a guy who's big and can block. He adds a dimension."
Gorman, said Brookhart, "is really good. He's advanced on some other teams, but he's good enough (at holding) that I'd want to travel with him regardless."
Brookhart said the Buffs' overall special teams coverage improved over the course of camp. He didn't spend much time watching tape of past CU special teams because he knew what he wanted his standard to be. "I wanted to make sure that we had quality coverages," he said. "That's where I put my focus from a personnel standpoint. On the return phases, I tried to even things up a little. A lot of times your return personnel are drawn from the defensive side of the ball. So I tried to involve more people on the return units to share the load; that's always kind of been my philosophy with it."
Being first-year kickers, neither O'Neill nor Oliver have achieved any notoriety on campus - yet. "And that's not a bad thing," Oliver said. "If you're going to be recognized, it better be for good things. You've got to do this on the field, that's where it starts. The rest . . . it happens as it happens."
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: J.D. Brookhart, first season on CU staff.
Returning starters: P Zach Grossnickle, Soph.; SN Ryan Iverson, Soph.
Returnees: PK Justin Castor, Soph.; PR Paul Richardson, Soph.; PR Rodney Stewart, Sr.; KOR Brian Lockridge, Sr.; KOR Arthur Jaffee, Sr.; H Kyle Cefalo, Sr.
Newcomers: PK Will Oliver, Fr.; P Darragh O'Neill, Fr.; P Mark Brundage, Sr.; SN Kyle Slavin, Fr.-RS; SN Keegan LaMar, Fr.; PR D.D. Goodson, Fr.; KOR Tony Jones, Fr.-RS; KOR Keenan Canty, Fr.-RS; H Justin Gorman, Fr.-RS.
Key losses: PK Aric Goodman, SN Joe Silipo.
Stat line: The Buffs were ninth in the Big 12 in punting in 2010 (75th in the NCAA) with a 39.5 average (Grossnickle), and 10th in kick scoring (5.2 points a game). Goodman made 10 of 15 field goal attempts and 32 of 33 PAT tries. Castor's only field goal attempt in 2010 was blocked.
Bottom line: CU is looking for an across-the-board upgrade from its special teams, and will try to achieve it in the kicking game with a pair of freshmen - Oliver (PK) and O'Neill (P). The return games were decent in 2010, with Lockridge and Jaffee back to return kickoffs and Stewart and Richardson slotted to return punts, along with Goodson getting a look. Coverage on both kickoffs and punts has been strongly emphasized by the new coaching staff and should improve. Iverson returns as a solid snapper and Gorman should work well as his new holder.
As a kid, Darragh (pronounced Dare-uh) worked occasionally at odd jobs at the Boulder pub. He attended Fairview High School, where basketball and soccer were his sports of choice, not leaving any time for football until he enrolled at CU last year, attended several Buffs games and thought kicking was something he could do in American football.
But he came dangerously close to never getting that chance.
The O'Neills return to Ireland almost every summer, and Darragh became proficient playing Gaelic football, which features a punting style among the ways players can advance the ball upfield. "He's always been extremely athletic . . . and he could always kick the ball," his father said.
But in this country, his athleticism steered him toward basketball and soccer. In his senior season at Fairview, he was an all-state (5A) selection, averaging 22.4 points a game and drawing interest from the University of Denver as a possible walk-on. In soccer, he scored 13 of his 35 career goals as a senior and was honorable mention all-state.
If he blossomed athletically in his final year of high school, it was his sophomore year that left indelible memories. Horrific ones. During that year at Fairview, O'Neill complained about what he believed was a sore throat. It was - and it wasn't. He was experiencing the early stages of a once fairly rare infectious disease called Lamierre's Syndrome, which is said to attack the body faster than cancer.
The non-contagious disease usually begins with a sore throat. Blood clots can form in the jugular vein, ultimately traveling to the lungs. Bacteria can eventually spread throughout the body, attacking different organs. The onslaught is swift.
About two weeks before his son was stricken, Colm O'Neill remembers going to Mullen High School for a basketball game and watching Darragh hit a last-second shot in a one-point Fairview win.
"One thing about Darragh, when he's gotten serious and pumping, he's pretty good at whatever he's doing," his father said. "From the word go, he would give a good effort. But he's pretty good when the chips are down, too."
Two weeks after the Mullen-Fairview game, the chips fell fast; Darragh was on life support at Children's Hospital in Denver. He had become violently ill, said his father, as they were watching Premier League Soccer on television. Darragh would spend two and a half weeks in intensive care, four days on life support.
A blood clot in Darragh's jugular vein had moved into his lungs. His lungs hemorrhaged. He said his resting heart rate increased to 210 beats a minutes and he went into septic shock. Doctors induced a coma, and he said he was under for a week.
Said O'Neill: "I actually was given Last Rites."
Thankfully, they weren't needed.
Colm O'Neill said because of a staffing situation at the hospital, Darragh was kept in intensive care rather than being transferred out when he appeared to be improving. When his son's condition unexpectedly worsened and he began vomiting blood, Darragh got the immediate attention that probably saved his life. Said Colm: "By the Grace of God he was still there (in intensive care) . . . it was an absolute nightmare."
Darragh's body rallied and recovered, but a full recovery took time; he was out of sports for about a year.
He has no idea of what brought on his illness, other than being "just completely unlucky," he said. But there's no denying that his Irish luck (or something more potent) kicked in at the appropriate time.
"It was crazy, but it definitely makes you appreciate every chance you get," he said. "So just to be in this position (at CU) is absolutely unbelievable. It taught me to definitely seize the day, take every moment in and be so appreciative of everything that's given to you."
O'Neill's venture into punting initially struck his father as a joke. "But I encouraged him," Colm said. "He had played a reasonable amount of Gaelic football and the way you punt the ball in American football is similar. I thought he could give it a good shot."
Darragh initially approached CU special teams coach J.D. Brookhart about placekicking, but was told to concentrate on punting. Brookhart might not have been expecting what he got; if the Irish kid developed quickly enough from mid-April to early August, it would be a bonus. If not, Brookhart simply would go in another direction.
But O'Neill, who sought punting tips from local instructor Matt Thompson as well as Oakland backup Glenn Pakulak, "came out the middle of spring ball and just took off," Brookhart recalled. "He's an athletic kid that's good in those pressure situations . . . he's got that mentality of having been there in those situations and I think that helps."
O'Neill was enrolled at CU in 2010 and attended several football games. The atmosphere at Folsom Field inspired him. "I wished I was out there," he said. "I thought I could contribute in some way, and playing soccer I knew I had a good leg, so I just figured I could give punting a try and see where it took me. It's taken me pretty far, so far.
"I think I've been punting pretty well (since being named No. 1). It's nice that the coaches had faith in me as a punter. I think that instilled a little bit of confidence in me, a little extra confidence. I've been punting well since then but I still want to improve."
O'Neill, who is classified as a redshirt freshman, concedes there might be a "few butterflies" at Hawai'i, but adds, "I'm not nervous. I'm just going to go in there and trust my technique and do what I do in practice. I think I'm going to be just fine. Obviously we do some live drills here to get prepared for that and I'm not nervous at all really. I'm sure once I step out there, there'll be a few butterflies, though."
Neither O'Neill nor his family has visited Hawai'i. Colm has been deliberating whether to book a flight for Saturday's opener. He might opt to attend CU's Sept. 24th game at Ohio State, rendezvousing with the co-owner of their pair of pubs. They met while attending grad school at Michigan, "And he's an anti-Ohio State fan," Colm said.
Of course, Colm is anxious to watch Darragh punt. He strongly believes his son will succeed, but acknowledges, "It's a completely different animal when all these fellows are running at you trying to take your head off. I'm confident in him, though. I think being the unknown, being the underdog helps him. When he was the rank outsider (in CU's punting competition) and given zero chance, there was the element of 'I'm going to prove these buggers wrong.'"
Darragh O'Neill has done it before, with the stakes much, much higher.