Former USC defensive back refocuses training, looks to make impact for Cobras

Omari Crittenden grew up in central California, and he insists he didn't know anything about the prowess of the USC Trojans' football program. The same one that won four Rose Bowls, claimed two national championships and had three Heisman Trophy winners.

And that was just the 2000s, a small slice of Trojan tradition.

"It blows my mind to this day," said Crittenden, a 6-foot, 195-pound defensive back who signed with the Seattle-Tacoma Cobras earlier this month. "How did I not know?"

USC actually wasn't in his college plans. Crittenden led his Johansen High School football team in tackles during his senior season in 2006, and he was a second-team all-league selection that year, but he wasn't heavily recruited and didn't really know where he wanted to go to further his education. All he wanted was to walk on to a college football or track-and-field team.

Crittenden, 24, said his cousin was a member of the USC track team, and a friend who was attending the university suggested he give it a shot, even though it was during the late-enrollment period.

Another friend told him he "wasn't smart enough" to get in. That set off Crittenden's competitive fire.

On the contrary, Crittenden had been taking honors classes since he was in fifth grade. He applied for enrollment at USC, was accepted, entered the engineering program and set his sights on football.

"In that sense, it was kind of a cool thing," Crittenden said. "When I went and tried out, I didn't have any pressure. I'd do my thing I'd always done, go about my business.

"Then I found out how big football is at USC," he said. "It is the school. That's about as mildly as I can put it."

There was one problem, though. Actually, several of them.

"The guys ahead of me were big-time athletes," Crittenden said. "It was pretty hard to beat those guys out. They're the top recruits. They basically started since my freshman year."

Crittenden played in just one game during his four-year career, a 56-3 blowout win over San Jose State in the 2009 season-opener, his junior season.

"I was busting my butt on special teams the year before that," Crittenden said. "That's where I was trying to find my niche at the time."

Crittenden switched from safety to cornerback while he was at USC, and he has a lot of pride in his ability to bring big hits.

"I'm not afraid to come up and lay into you and knock you off your feet if I have to," he said.

At the same time, he covered some of the best wide receivers in the country at practice every day.

Crittenden finished his bachelor's of science degree in May 2011 and worked for a month in an engineering job in Mareno Valley, Calif. But an hour-long commute from Los Angeles took its toll, and he soon found himself working as a manager at a retail business, something to make ends meet and provide some money to get him the kind of training he needed to reach the next level.

For the past year and a half, Crittenden's sole focus has been to get back on the field and show people he belongs. He went back to work on the fundamentals of his running form, and he asked track coaches to help him drop his 40-yard dash time from 4.68 seconds to 4.5. The 40 time is one of the most talked-about results when it comes to scouting combines, although it doesn't necessarily define the player.

"It shows how much makeup speed you have," Crittenden said. "As a corner, you might get beat a couple of times, so how fast can you make up that ground?"

He's switched his focus from structured team workouts to ones that help him improve specific areas.

"I want the strength, but at the end of the day, you can't use your strength if you don't have the speed," Crittenden said. "You can be Arnold Schwarzenegger strong, but if you don't have that speed, you can't use your strength to your advantage."

Crittenden also knows football ultimately may not work out. He eventually plans to return to school to earn a master's degree in engineering.

Crittenden's former USC teammates Michael Morgan, a linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks, and David Ausberry, a tight end for the Oakland Raiders, have told him they see players come in one week and leave the next.

"I know it's not a guarantee, but in my mind, I know I can make it," Crittenden said. "It's how my life has been to this point. Most adversity that I've been confronted with, I've been successful."

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