Conor O'Neill ready to 'Bear Down' for roster spot in Chicago

Conor O'Neill (right) hunts down South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw in the 2014 Capital One Bowl. - David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Signed to the Chicago Bears in June, the former Wisconsin Badgers linebacker looks to make a splash later this month in the NFL.

Former Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Conor O'Neill didn't receive a phone call immediately after the 2014 NFL Draft ended May 10 like he had hoped. Other former Badgers like Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak, Ethan Hemer and Ryan Groy were scooped up quickly on that Saturday afternoon by NFL teams immediately after the draft concluded.

But O'Neill had to wait, at least until the morning after. The 6'0, 230-pound athlete out of Delray Beach, Florida, did receive a call that Sunday after, saying there was an opportunity to try out for the Chicago Bears during their rookie camp. He made the most of his opportunity at that camp as well as at the mandatory veteran minicamp, and the Bears signed him as an undrafted free agent on June 19.

Now, O'Neill hopes to continue impressing coaches and personnel as the versatile linebacker heads into his first NFL training camp, looking to make the Bears' opening day roster.

It's been nearly a month since the legendary franchise signed O'Neill, but he's humbled and still trying to wrap his around the experience. After the last day of the mandatory minicamp on that Thursday, he was summoned to the front office, where he was told to shower up quickly so they could perform a physical and officially sign him.

"It's really been a whirlwind, and it's awesome," O'Neill said. "It's really a blessing."

O'Neill earned that contract after performing well during the rookie camp in mid-May and was brought back for the three-day minicamp that ran June 17-19. It shouldn't come as a surprise that an undrafted Wisconsin Badgers football player has worked his way toward having a shot at an NFL roster spot.

Of the 38 former Badgers currently on NFL rosters, 12 were undrafted. Safety Chris Maragos won a Super Bowl championship with the Seattle Seahawks and signed a deal the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason, but was undrafted when he initially came into the league with the San Francisco 49ers in 2010.

Besides O'Neill and the four rookies who signed with teams after the 2014 draft, last year's class made the most of its opportunities as well. Devin Smith, Marcus Cromartie, Shelton Johnson and Mike Taylor all found homes on NFL practice squads or signed to active rosters during the 2013 season.

Then there's Jim Leonhard, who's still unsigned by an NFL team but has played for a decade at the professional level.

Versatility is the key to the longevity of many NFL players, and many Badgers fit that mold. Maragos -- aside from being a part of the vaunted "Legion of Boom" within the Seahawks' secondary -- has made an impact on special teams. Pedersen thrived at the college level playing in the slot and at both the standard "Y" and hybrid tight end positions, which along with his ability to play special teams as well, will make him an intriguing contributor for the Atlanta Falcons.

O'Neill is no different at the linebacker position. His experience in both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses in his Badgers career has allowed him to play multiple linebacker positions. Under Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker -- a former Badgers defensive back in the Barry Alvarez era -- O'Neill has already played at the "Sam" strong-side linebacker position during the rookie camp and at the "Will" weak-side linebacker in Tucker's 4-3 base scheme.

"You really want to be a master at your position -- you know what everyone's doing on the field."

"I told them I can play all three linebacker positions if they want me to," O'Neill said.

"Mentally, it's not that hard for me to pick up on things because I feel like you really want to be a master at your position -- you know what everyone's doing on the field."

O'Neill's gained some mentors in his short time in Chicago, including veteran linebacker Jordan Senn, who signed a free-agent deal with the Bears this offseason. Defensive tackle Nate Collins, who trained with O'Neill at XPE Sports down in southern Florida in the winter months, took him under his wing.

It also helped having a former teammate in Groy to lean on in Chicago. Their friendship grew before they even stepped foot on the field together as Badgers. The two met in high school after committing to Wisconsin, as Groy's family is from Florida.

"It's nice having a familiar face around," O'Neill said. "Just to be able to have somebody that you have a connection with and that you can truly already have a bond with someone in the locker room rather than feeling like you're alone, which I feel a lot of people -- especially rookies in the NFL -- they kind of have that deal coming into their first couple of weeks, so to be able to be with him during rookie minicamp and during veteran minicamp, it's kind of nice to have that familiarity with each other."

O'Neill heads back to Chicago July 22 before the Bears start their training camp three days later. Since heading back to Florida after Chicago's last minicamp, he's been training 5-to-6 days a week at XPE. O'Neill has put in a similar routine since a week after the Capital One Bowl in January, which has paid off, as XPE's expert trainer Tony Villani has trained the likes of all-pros Anquan Bolden and Eric Berry.

Though he's looking ahead to his professional football career, he'll always remember the fond times he held in Madison. He particularly remembers his first snap as a Badger on the kickoff return team against UNLV during the 2010 season. It was an emotional experience to get back out on the football field after redshirting the season before.

O'Neill also knows the program's success during his time in Madison -- three consecutive Big Ten championships and Rose Bowl appearances -- is a rare, special achievement. The three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree knows the rarity of even playing in one Rose Bowl, let alone three.

"It's one of the most unbelievable venues in America," O'Neill said, "and to be able to play against three really good teams -- in TCU, Oregon and Stanford -- it's something that we'll able to, all of us, to keep memories for the rest of our lives."

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