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Reach out

Posted May 12, 2013

Converted cornerback Onterio McCalebb got some pretty heady advice from one of the Bengals all-time greats at the position, Ken Riley.


Onterio McCalebb

This is the chain of command in the NFL:

All-time great player. Owner. Head coach. Rookie.

That was how Auburn rookie Onterio McCalebb's phone conversation with Bengals great Ken Riley unfolded before he arrived at this weekend's rookie minicamp trying to duplicate what Riley did that summer man walked on the moon.

At the moment, moonwalking may seem a lot easier for McCalebb as he tries to make the transition from running back to cornerback in his first five practices as an NFL player. During the Saturday morning practice, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer went over his backpedal and after the practice broke, McCalebb stayed behind on the field to work on it.

Like secondary coach Mark Carrier has been saying: It takes something special to play backward.

"That’s one thing I’ve been having problems with," McCalebb said after Saturday's first practice. "I haven’t backpedaled in I don’t know how many years it was. It was in high school, like 2008. All through my Auburn career I played running back. So I’m just trying to get the feel for it more, and hopefully I can get everything down pat and help the team win and make it to the playoffs."

He goes by The Fastest Man at the Combine. Unofficially 4.27 and 4.21 seconds. But at just 168 pounds, all that can get anyone in today's NFL is a cup of coffee and a free-agent shot. At some point during or after this camp ends Sunday at noon, the Bengals must decide if they should hang with the experiment or switch McCalebb to wide receiver.

The idea is to find a spot for him so special teams coach Darrin Simmons can use his speed on kick returns and as a gunner covering punts. 

So the club has to decide if and when it has seen enough. And what the Bengals have seen in four practices is no surprise. McCalebb is able to close on receivers, but as far as the finer points … .

For instance, during a team period Saturday afternoon the 5-10 McCalebb found himself matched up with the sixth-rounder, 6-1 Arkansas wide receiver Cobi Hamilton. Hamilton went deep on him and he got behind him off the line as McCalebb tried to get into that dreaded backpedal.

But McCalebb, the Florida 100 champ as a junior and the 200 champ as a senior, doesn't get run by. He caught back up and stayed close enough to Hamilton that the pass was broken up with help from the safety coming over. Except that McCalebb never turned his head back to the ball, a cornerback's original sin.

"The one thing is learning the technique, but the other thing is learning the defense on top of that and he seems to be keeping up with that," Carrier said. "This isn't easy. He's doing OK. You can see he's got that speed, but it's a process. He's a good kid, tough kid. You know he's got to be tough because he was a running back in that conference (the SEC)."

The learning curve is as steep as McCalebb's stride.

Which is why Riley called Bengals president Mike Brown when he read of McCalebb's challenge with his old team.

Riley, a quarterback from Florida A&M taken out of the sixth round in the 1969 draft, had never played cornerback before arriving at the Bengals Wilmington, Ohio training camp and he ended up with a 15-year career that qualifies for the Pro Football Hall of Fame with his 65 career interceptions.

It turns out that Riley, a retired coach and educator, saw McCalebb play in high school at Fort Meade, Fla., which is close enough to Riley's hometown of Bartow that before integration, African-Americans from Fort Meade played at Bartow High School, a Florida perennial. Eight miles apart, says Riley, a key figure on those state powers.  

Riley called Brown and told him he wanted to help and Brown passed on Riley's number to head coach Marvin Lewis. Lewis told McCalebb it'd be a good idea to talk to a guy that, in the book, has played more games than anyone in Bengals history with 207.

"Coach Marvin told me he wanted me to call him, so I called him and we talked for a while, close to like 30-45 minutes," McCalebb said. "He was telling me a lot of things about going out there and work hard, stuff like that. When we have our little break here in July, I'm supposed to go back down there and he's going to help me out with a lot of things."

Hard to believe, but Riley's age now matches those 65 picks he had from '69 to '83. They are the fifth most interceptions of all-time and everyone ahead of him on the list is in the Hall of Fame. Of the five men behind him, two are in and Darren Sharper and Ed Reed are going to be in soon enough.

But even if Riley was in his rightful place in Canton, Ohio, McCalebb still probably wouldn't have heard of him. McCalebb was born six years after Riley's last game, when he picked off Vikings quarterback Wade Wilson twice and passed his position coach on the all-time list. Dick LeBeau's 63 didn't get him in the Hall until three years ago.

"It's a small world, you never know somebody right down the street from you was an all-pro at cornerback, played quarterback and switched to a defensive player," McCalebb said. "I never knew that. When they were telling me about it, I was like, 'That's pretty awesome.'

"I had never heard of him till Marvin told me about him. Next time we talk he’ll probably talk to me more about his days of playing ball. He said he wants to sit down with me and he's going to help me with my backpedal and all that stuff. "

There may be no one better on earth to consult on such a conversion. After watching McCalebb struggle with technique for the past two days, Carrier shakes his head at the career of Ken Jerome Riley.

"I mean, that's the ultimate result of a position switch," Carrier said. "Amazing."

Riley agrees, although there is no doubt in his mind he could have played quarterback if the Bengals hadn't taken Greg Cook No. 1 in his draft.

"It was a great move because I played 15 years," Riley said. "You've got to have the physical skills. I could change directions. I played basketball. I played football. I ran track. I excelled in all three. Greg Cook was a great quarterback, but if he wasn't there, I could have played quarterback. There's no doubt. I saw who was in camp."

Ah, confidence. You also need that on the corner. After the draft, Riley remembers working with Bengals secondary coach/defensive coordinator Tom Bass before camp opened.

"The big thing that helped me is I didn't have any bad habits," Riley said. "He showed me the basics and the fundamentals and I worked on them during the offseason."

Riley made three major points in his conversation with McCalebb: Mindset. Stance. Basics.

"You're not going to make the transition if you still think you're an offensive player," Riley said. "You may get the chance later down the line in camp, but if you're still thinking about being a running back or receiver, you're going to have problems. Right now, you have to get your mind right and focus on defense."

Check.

McCalebb is all in. Here's a guy for whom everyone is pulling. Taken from his drug-dependent mother in fourth grade, then watching his father go to jail, McCalebb bounced from home to home before having a productive career at Auburn that put him on the all-time lists for rushing and receiving.

He's used to adjusting.

"I'm happy to have the opportunity to be out here and to provide for my family," McCalebb said. "The background I've been through with my family, it's just an opportunity for me to be out here."

Riley says everything on the field starts at the start.

"The stance," Riley said. "You have to start there and from there it's mastering the fundamentals. Stop and go. Changing directions. Studying receivers because you're going backward."

If McCalebb's home finally ends up being the one on the corner, Riley is the man that can lead him to the door.

"He's from my hometown," Riley said. "Of course I want to see him succeed."

 

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