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Steelers rookie CB Cortez Allen played collegiately at The Citadel, the Charleston, S.C. military academy where about a third of its graduating students will go on to serve in various branches of the armed services.
Allen is going on to a different professional career, but his Citadel experience sticks with him as he prepares for the NFL.
"I guess the best thing (is) I've learned how to put in the extra work to be successful," he told PFW. "Nothing is really given to you."
Allen, the Steelers' fourth-round pick, did not play varsity football until his senior year at North Marion High School in Ocala, Fla. He missed his freshman year with a groin injury. As a sophomore, told to pick one sport by his father, he chose basketball. As a junior, he finally chose football, but he was placed on the junior varsity.
That's not a well-worn path to take to be noticed by collegiate coaches, but Allen played well enough as a senior to draw interest from a handful of schools, most notably Cincinnati. But The Citadel, and the belief that the academy would give him a chance to be "set up for life," was his choice.
The 6-1¼, 197-pound Allen played sparingly as a true freshman in 2006, then missed the '07 season with an ACL tear suffered playing basketball. However, he returned in '08 to become a part-time starter, then entered the lineup full time in his final two collegiate seasons, intercepting three passes in '09 and two in 2010.
With the Steelers, whom he visited before the draft, he'll have no shortage of good teachers. His position coach, Carnell Lake, was a standout Steelers defensive back. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a Hall of Fame cornerback. Head coach Mike Tomlin made his name early in his career as a defensive backs coach. Allen also cited veteran CB Ike Taylor as someone who can teach him.
"There's just so many avenues to learn from, which is a great opportunity for me," Allen said.
Allen's relative inexperience could be an asset, Lake said during the draft.
"That is the beauty of this pick," Lake said. "He played one year of high school football and moved around a little bit, playing the corner at The Citadel. The Citadel is not a 'football factory.' A lot of the work that he gets is very limited in terms of football.
"I asked him when he came to visit us, 'How much time do you get to work on your craft(?)' He said, 'I don't get a lot of time because I have to do The Citadel stuff.'
"So I said, this guy is really playing well, and he's not working on his craft that much because of his limited time. If he can spend a lot of time working on his craft, I see a lot of upside for him. I think that is one of the reasons why we selected him."
Allen said that during football season, he was excused from military drills on Tuesday and Thursday, but a normal day would have him waking at 6:30 a.m., getting into his cadet uniform and marching to breakfast. Then it was off to class. After practice and mandatory study hall, his day wouldn't be over until 10 p.m.
Allen, who said his range and press coverage are two of his top skills, is working out at The Citadel with the Bulldogs' CB coach, Gerald Dixon, who played with the Lions and Bills from 2002-04. Dixon has told Allen that special teams will be key to him contributing early and that "you have to keep that motor going at all times," Allen said.
Allen, a team captain, said he made sure to get in extra on-field work at The Citadel and believes he can handle the transition to the NFL level. He anticipates being used outside in the Steelers' scheme.
"I feel pretty good, confident, in my ability to play off(-man) and on(-man) (coverage) right now," he said.