Mike Criste: No Distractions

BELLEVUE - Tracy Ford was looking for a candidate, because he’s always looking for one on the first day. Consider it his initiation for a handful of college seniors looking to get that edge to put them in the NFL conversation. But to do that, you have to put in the work.

That’s what Washington center Mike Criste was doing at Ford Sports Performance, a modest workout complex set in the back of an industrial park near Factoria - not necessarily a place you’d expect the next professional stars to call their off-season home. But Ford, who had quickly stepped away to grab a giant Rubbermaid tub, was searching.

“I thought I was going to get one guy,” he said with a laugh. “I figured I’d get one guy. I don’t want to try and kill ‘em the first day; I want them to come back.”

Much like getting someone to ring out the first day of Seal Hell Week, Ford was looking for his victim - the one that would lose his lunch. The 6-foot-6, 319-pound Criste wasn’t about to be that guy.

“I can say this; I’ve never hurled from a workout,” he said. “I’m hoping to keep that streak.”

There’s no doubt Ford will test that streak, because Criste is in for a world of hurt the next nine weeks leading up to Washington’s Pro Day, set for early April.

“I’m looking for the same results everyone else is looking for; I’m trying to get faster, I’m trying to get stronger,” he said when asked about his goal during training. “I’m trying to be able to move quicker and in more than one direction. You look at my past years I’ve done a pretty good job of that in the past. Now I’m just trying to get better at it. I’ve always been kind of fast but I think I’m trying to get that burst - that 10 to 20 (yards). That’s what I’m looking for. If you can get the 10 and 20 better, you’re going to get the 40 better. That 10 and 20 is what a lineman needs to work on. You need that burst to get off the line and get to the second level. That’s mainly what I’m working towards. And obviously power, working to get more strength than I’ve ever had.”

He’s picked a unique venue in Ford Sports, one that barely has 40 yards of field turf hidden within its confines. But Criste wasn’t looking for flash. He wants substantial results without the glitz - and he’s found his man in Ford, someone who has shown to get plenty of local products ready for the league.

For instance, even though Korey Toomer doesn’t play for the Seattle Seahawks anymore, the former Idaho Vandal has already told Ford to be ready for him when he leaves St. Louis and heads back to the Northwest. Others, like Vandal and Ram teammate Justin Veltung, as well as Seattle’s DeShawn Shead, have gone to Ford to make sure they are winning in the off-season while the rest relax comfortably in their La-Z-Boys. Ford has his stable of current NFL’ers that he caters to, but he also prides himself on creating the right environment for those college seniors willing to go beyond their limits. If they can do that, he can give them the training needed to kill it during their Pro Days and pre-draft combines.

It’s the first day of workouts, and for Ford this is just the beginning; a prelude to coming attractions. For Criste, it’s the start of a trip whose destination is clear. He always wanted the NFL coming out of Mission Viejo, Calif., but never allowed himself to look much past what was right in front of him.

“If you focus on too far down the road, you’ll get lost,” he said. “I’ll be honest. It’s not something you can even envision. You envision going to college because you’re there. For me, it’s not something I envisioned coming into college. For me, it’s now what’s in front of me. If I can win at what’s right in front of me, I’ll win down the road. That’s what I focus on. I never really paid too much attention to what might happen five years after high school.”

Ironically, Oklahoma State defensive back Elliott Jeffcoat happens to be working out today. Criste’s Huskies lost to Jeffcoat’s Cowboys 30-22 in the Cactus Bowl just a couple weeks ago. “There’s no hard feelings; they beat us,” Criste said, matter-of-factly. “We didn’t play to the best of our abilities. They capitalized on every single moment of that. My hat’s off to them. I have no regrets coming out of the game other than how it ended up.

“It’s more fuel for the fire. It’s not how we wanted to end up as a team; it’s not how I wanted to end up as a player. That’s how it is. You go into a bowl game, someone’s going to lose. If it happens to be you, oh well…move on and get ready for the next thing. For me, that’s getting ready right now and getting ready here to try and make myself the best athlete I can be.”

In today’s group, there were also seniors from Big Sky schools like Idaho and Portland State, as well as players from as far away as Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Oregon’s Keanon Lowe and Arizona’s Tra’Mayne Bondurant are also expected to participate in Ford’s pre-draft program. Criste believes the environment created by Ford and the lack of external temptation makes it an ideal situation for him to focus exclusively on his training.

“For me, it’s somewhere I’m used to training,” he said. “The cold? It’s not even cold. We’re out here, away from everything. I’m not at school with the coaches I’m comfortable with. I’m not with the players I’m comfortable with. It’s a new setting and new guys and it’s a small group. That is beneficial. The thing with the California groups is, everyone wants to go down there because it’s ‘the best thing’. But when you get a group of 20, 30 guys, you lose that focus to work as hard. When it’s 5, 6, 7 guys, it’s a little bit different. It’s a tight knit group and you can be exposed. You expect the best out of each other and you’re going to push each other. Down in a big group, you’re just another body. Here it’s definitely going to help me to push myself harder because I’d be letting these guys down. We all want the best for each other. That’s going to help me out the most.”

Criste is the lone offensive lineman in the group, looking more lumberjack than lineman with a massive black beard, but Ford saw what he needed to during the season to single him out for small group training. “Mike has the frame at 6-6, 319 pounds,” Ford said. “If I can get him down to 305, with his draft grade - that seventh round/undrafted free agent grade - he’s a great fit for what we do. He’s overlooked a little bit, but if he comes in in great shape, tests phenomenally in front of a scouting base of all 32 teams that will be there, probably a couple of head coaches with the guys they’ve got coming out there…I think he’s a great fit for what we do with that underdog mentality, that underdog role. I hope he enjoys his experience here and gets what he wants out of it.

“He’s athletic, and it shows. He jumped 25.5 (inches) coming in, so he’ll jump anywhere from 30, 31 (inches) when it’s all said and done - and that’s really good for a guy that’s 319 pounds.”

Ford will handle making Criste a better athlete; former Idaho offensive lineman Matt Cleveland will help Criste maintain his technique in preparation for Pro Day. He knows he needs to have everything on point for that day, because - as Ford expects - every single NFL team will have representatives stalking the Dempsey Indoor in April looking to be shocked. They know all about the Shaq Thompsons, the Danny Sheltons, the Hauoli Kikaha’s. But what about the Mike Cristes? Pro Days like the one at UW can provide plenty of positive exposure, but it can also expose you if you’re not ready. Criste is putting in the work now to take full advantage of what lies ahead.

“I can show all these people what I can do,” he said when asked about Pro Day. “They may be here to see this guy, but let me show ‘em up. Let me do something they weren’t expecting. Let me blow their minds out of the water and surprise them. That’s what people are looking for. They are looking to be surprised.”

Yet the first surprise of Criste’s training came in day one with Ford; a speed, agility and quickness drill, twelve repetitions’ worth. Split up into two blocks of six reps with a couple minutes rest in-between, each player was pitted against another in a race. It consisted of following instructions while exhausted and short bursts of movement, followed by longer stretches to the finish. For day one, it was a quick barometer as to who came to work in shape and who didn’t.

“That’s what going to happen at a camp,” Criste said with a smile. “You’re going to be expected to jump in full speed, not knowing what to expect. But it was shaky at first, shaking off the cobwebs. Toward the end of the season you get a little bit lighter in the weight and you have a week off before bowl week and then bowl week and then off until now…you don’t get as much intensity training. You can work out as hard as you want; you’re just not going to get that intensity training I got here today. It was fun, but it was definitely shaky at first. I got into the groove of it at the end.”

To learn more about Ford Sports Performance, click here.

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