Michigan's O'Neill growing into a model punter
Ann Arbor — Back home in Melbourne, Australia, Michigan punter Blake O'Neill helped pay his way through college by modeling.
The 6-foot-2, 212-pound O'Neill did it all thanks to the prominent fashion industry there.
Now, he's Michigan's starting punter, part of a growing number of Australians who have become college football kickers in the United States after training at ProKick Academy back home. O'Neill is a graduate transfer after playing one season at Weber State, where he averaged 44.1 yards a game and had a long of 74 yards.
He has six punts through two games at Michigan and is averaging 42.8 yards.
O'Neill's teammates here are aware of his fashion career that started when he was 18. Occasionally, they post some of his modeling shots in his locker, all in good-natured fun, of course.
"The guy's got some style," defensive lineman Matt Godin said laughing. "I appreciate it."
O'Neill's modeling background is varied.
"All sorts of things,"he said Monday at Michigan's weekly news conference. "Fashion modeling, catwalk, anything.
"I was a little budding Zoolander."
The reference to actor Ben Stiller's role as Derek Zoolander, male model, incited laughter. O'Neill, however, drew the line at mimicking Zoolander's distinct puckered lips, sucked-in-cheeks modeling pose.
"No, no. I don't have a 'Blue Steel' (pose)," he said.
He isn't in Ann Arbor to model, but to fill the void in the kicking game. O'Neill said all of the Australians kicking for college teams stay in touch from their time at ProKick, although he said he does not know Maryland kicker Brad Craddock well.
There are several Australian kickers in the Big Ten, including Cameron Johnston at Ohio State, Daniel Pasquariello at Penn State and Tim Gleeson at Rutgers. Michigan already has played Utah, which features Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett — the last two Ray Guy awards have gone to Australian kickers — and Oregon State with punter Nick Porebski.
"We're all good mates," O'Neill said.
ProKick develops Australian kickers into American-style kickers and helps them earn scholarships to college programs here.
O'Neill, who had been playing amateur Australian football, decided to attend the academy.
"I had finished my undergrad studies and had always followed football, and it was sort of at the point I could either get working or continue my education," O'Neill said. "It seemed like a good opportunity to obviously see America and play college football. Little did I know I'd end up at Michigan."
Michigan special teams coordinator John Baxter said before the season started that O'Neill has amazing skill punting.
"He can hit all four panels on the ball," Baxter said. "He can bend it right to left, left to right, he can back 'em up, release 'em forwards."
It took about six months, O'Neill said, for him to get comfortable at ProKick with American-style punting.
"It depends on each guy, but around six months to get comfortable with the idea of pro style punting," he said. "Now, if I go between pro style and back to Aussie punting, there's still a little transition there, where you have to stop, check yourself and (think) 'Oh, that's a different type of kick' and get in that groove."
Several family members are arriving Saturday from Australia to spend four weeks here. O'Neill plans to escort them around Ann Arbor and they will attend the games. Family and friends have watched Michigan's first two games back in Australia online at odd times of the day.
O'Neill, in his final year of eligibility, said the experience at Michigan has been unique.
"It's quite surreal, to be honest," he said Monday. "Ann Arbor is a great town. It's remarkable to see how big of an impact (football has) on the lives of people here. Certainly football is big in Australia but perhaps not to the level of fandom it is here. Running out in front of the Big House on Saturday was certainly a moment I'll cherish."