Last April, Onterio McCalebb’s life changed in a different way after he wasn’t drafted.
McCalebb was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals as a defensive back, even though he had no prior experience at that position.
“Some nights I cried because it was like I was starting all over again,” McCalebb said. “All my life I played running back, so it was like I went back to playing little league football.”
McCalebb had to adjust to his new position from the ground back up in a matter of weeks while hoping his name would not be the next cut before preseason ended.
Coming into training camp, each team is allowed 90 players on their roster. The Bengals had to cut their roster down to the final 53 players, plus the seven-man practice squad after the last preseason game.
“I’m just thinking every day wondering if they’re going to keep me,” McCalebb said. “During the whole process when they were cutting guys, I was just seeing people drop like flies. I had best friends on the team and I come in the next day and they’re gone.”
But McCalebb did fall back on his friends when looking to get advice from former Auburn teammates, such as defensive back T’Sharvan Bell.
“I called him and was like, ‘I’m going to need your help because I don’t know what I’m doing out there,’” McCalebb said. “After the whole process of practicing and stuff like that, it’s really stressful, so you need someone like that who has played the position before.”
When the Bengals signed McCalebb, he found out about a former NFL cornerback, Ken Riley, who happened to also live in Polk County, Fla.
Riley also switched from playing offense in college as a quarterback at Florida A&M University to playing defense once he got to the NFL.
Riley ended up becoming the all-time interceptions leader in Bengals history and is fifth all-time in NFL history with 65 career interceptions.
“You’re not going to make the transition if you still think you’re an offensive player,” Riley told Bengals.com. “If you’re still thinking about being a running back or receiver, you’re going to have problems. You have to get your mind right and focus on defense.”
McCalebb turned to Riley for advice about transitioning to a new position in the NFL.
“We met every morning and we trained, and he showed me some pointers with back pedaling,” McCalebb said. “When I first started I thought I was going to tear both of my ACLs because I’m not used to running backwards, but when I got used to, it I told myself I can guard anybody.”
McCalebb had to not only make the difficult adjustment of turning into a defensive player, but also impress the coaching staff. Bengals defensive backs coach Mark Carrier took McCalebb under his wing.
“Coach Carrier, he helped me out a lot,” McCalebb said. “He took his time to do one-on-one with me and he helped me break it down to a T.”
From trying to outrace trains in high school, to catching a squirrel with his hands in college, to running an official 4.34-40 yard dash at the 2013 NFL combine, McCalebb has always been fast and the coaches took notice of that.
“A thing we weren’t necessarily sure about with Onterio was, ‘Does he have the quickness to be a corner?’” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis told Cincinnati.com. “After watching him in practices, I don’t have any doubt about that.”
McCalebb has used his speed to his advantage when guarding top NFL receivers in practice.
“I guard A.J. Green and all those guys; I can guard anyone because of my speed,” McCalebb said. “I’m not worried about the speed part though; you’ve got to worry about technique and what to do when the ball is thrown.”
After spending the entire 2013 season on the practice squad, McCalebb now considers himself a defensive player and is looking forward to what is in store for him this upcoming season.
“I love football so much so it feels like I’ve been off for a long time now,” McCalebb said. “I told (Carrier) I can’t wait to get back because somebody on the team is going to hate me because somebody is not going to be playing and I’m going to be playing.”