Safety first, Crouch says

"I'm not a quitter."

So says Eric Crouch.

Crouch didn't offer this observation at last week's minicamp. Nor did he make it when he quit on the Packers before last summer's training camp. Crouch said it when he quit on the St. Louis Rams during his rookie-year training camp.

This time, Crouch says he's finally faced NFL reality. The 2001 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Nebraska says he's come to grips that he can't play that position at the professional level.

That's why, Crouch says, he not only will line up at safety during next month's minicamp and July's training camp, but he'll be happy to be lining up at safety.

Crouch was drafted in the third round by the Rams in 2002 to play wide receiver. He showed some flashes of having a future at the position but retired, he claimed at the time, because a menagerie of leg and ankle injuries kept him from giving it his best.

Crouch was headed north of the border to play in the Canadian Football League before the Packers picked him up on waivers last year. He participated in two minicamps but didn't show the Packers enough to halt their pursuit of Akili Smith, the former Cincinnati Bengals first-round pick the Packers picked up off waivers in June. Seeing the writing on the wall as the fifth quarterback on the depth chart, Crouch quit again on the eve of training camp.

Now, Crouch is getting a shot at the safety position opposite standout Darren Sharper. This time, Crouch says, he's serious about playing football at a position other than quarterback.

"Just the fact that football is still in my blood and I'm going to have to exhaust that and just play and find a place to fit in," Crouch said on the first day of the recent minicamp. "It's been kind of a tough go for me. This is my third position. Each time I've come in to give it a shot it's been at a new position, so this is something I feel comfortable with and I feel this is where it's going to be for my future."

At 6 foot and 203 pounds, Crouch is big enough to play safety. Anybody who watched Crouch run roughshod over collegiate defenses knows he's athletic enough to play defense. And, being an option quarterback who ran more than passed, Crouch certainly is physical enough to play the position.

Now all he has to do is make the conversion from quarterback to defensive back. The move, while rare, isn't unprecedented. Tony Dungy, the Indianapolis Colts head coach, made the switch, as did Crouch's Packers position coach, Kurt Schottenheimer. Same for former Packers assistant Nolan Cromwell. Corey Harris didn't play quarterback for the Packers, but the former collegiate wide receiver has carved out a lengthy NFL career as a defensive back.

As a quarterback, Crouch was responsible for knowing what every member of the offense was supposed to do. That deep knowledge of the offensive side of the game should pay dividends for a safety trying to diagnose what the offense is going to run.

"As a former quarterback, you're able to recognize certain offensive formations, and, athletically, quarterbacks have been able to play back there," Crouch said. "I think it's a matter of time before I'll know exactly where I have to be back there. The big thing is to get comfortable, so you don't play hesitant."

Crouch found his ultimate level of comfort running the option at Nebraska. He rolled up more than 8,000 yards of total offense in his career, and his 59 rushing touchdowns are a record for a Division I-A quarterback. He was as liable to break away from the pack as he was to put his shoulder down and plow his way into the end zone.

But it was evident during his opportunities at quarterback last summer that Crouch wasn't capable of playing the position in the NFL. His arm strength was OK but his accuracy was erratic at best. During 11-on-11 drills, Crouch gave up on plays too quickly and took off running. At 6 foot, too many of his passes were batted down at the line.

Perhaps Crouch finally came to the realization that he isn't good enough to play quarterback in the NFL. Or maybe he realized he can't earn this kind of money in the real world so he should swallow his pride and play another position. Either way, he said all the right things to the media last week.

"If I'm going to make it in this league, I think it's going to have to be at either strong or free safety," Crouch said. "I've got a lot to learn back there, but everything has been positive so far."

Crouch last played safety while a high schooler in Omaha, Neb. So while Crouch has the athleticism to play safety, don't expect him to be the next Darren Sharper overnight.

"He's very athletic, can run and has good strength and power," Schottenheimer, the Packers' new defensive backs coach, said. "It's something new and foreign to him, but he's doing a fine job to this point."

The question is, is Crouch willing to stick with it? Or will the three-time NFL quitter pack his bags at the next sign of adversity? This time, Crouch says, it's different. He's no longer a quarterback. He's a safety. And it's a challenge Crouch is eager to tackle.

"It's a position where you can kind of let loose a little bit and show a little personality where you feel comfortable with where you need to be and where you need to get to and you get there with speed and decisiveness and you make a big play. And you try to win football games like that."


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