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Intriguing rookies already emerging for Colts

Second-round pick Quincy Wilson has the confidence necessary to start as a rookie. (1070 the Fan photo)


For the moment, Malik Hooker is not one of the Colts’ rookies to watch. He is one of the rookies watching.

The first-round pick from Ohio State is recovering from surgeries on a torn labrum in his hip, as well as two sports hernias. Though he says he’s progressing nicely, he isn’t expected on the field till training camp, which meant missing the three-day rookie minicamp that concluded Sunday at the team’s West 56th Street complex. 

For a younger player who started just one full season at safety for Ohio State, who is expected to step right in as a starter for the Colts, it would be daunting to miss so much on-field prep time, but Hooker is doing his best to make the most of the situation.

“For me, right now it’s just studying film and rehabbing because obviously I can’t go out there and compete physically,” Hooker said. “So, the playbook and film study have got to be my best friends right now. Without that, what sense does it make to go out there and do everything as hard as you can but you’re doing it the wrong way? So I’ve got to study the film inside-out and make sure I know my job for when I do get healthy. … 

“For any position, it’s about your film study and how you prepare yourself. If you’re out all this time and you’re constantly hitting the film and you know your job inside and out, the easy thing is to go out there and do it. The harder thing is to know exactly what you’re doing. So I’m putting all this time and study into the film and I feel like I’m gifted enough to go out there and do the job if I know what I’m doing.”

In the meantime, there are plenty of other intriguing new players that bear close watching.

SECOND-ROUND STARTER

While Hooker gets up to speed, second-round pick Quincy Wilson of Florida already appears to be No. 1 on the depth chart at the cornerback spot opposite Vontae Davis. Starting two rookies in the secondary is risky business, but the Colts are hoping the assemblage of young talent that also includes Clayton Geathers and T.J. Green can yield long-term results 

“It’s wide-open back there,” said Chuck Pagano. “So as fast as they can grasp this and get on the field – again, we’re in shorts. They’re going to be in shorts for their seven week program starting on Monday. Everybody is in shorts, but every spot is open back there. We’ve got vets, we’ve got returning guys but it’s a great opportunity for all three of those guys. Hooker is not doing anything, we all knew that when we took him. He’ll be ready by training camp, but he’s going to get a ton of mental reps. Quincy looked good. (Nate) Hairston (a fifth-round pick from Temple) looked good. They’ve got as good an opportunity as anybody else.”

Wilson is a big corner (6-1, 213) who uses his strength to jam smaller receivers at the line, breaking their routes and mitigating his speed disadvantage. He also shows the supreme confidence necessary for the position.

“They drafted two playmakers and two guys that can really come in and make an impact and that’s what we’re here to do,” Wilson said, referring to himself and Hooker. “I definitely am very confident in myself. I know what I can do. I’m just focused on coming in, learning the playbook and asking a lot of questions. I feel good in my ability to learn and do what it takes to be able to play.”

THE FRANCHISE

One of the most significant holes in the defense is at inside linebacker, where D’Qwell Jackson served as the quarterback of that unit, making play calls, reads and pre-snap adjustments for the front seven. It’s a spot that requires supreme confidence, instincts, knowledge of the scheme and communication skills, which is why fifth-round pick Anthony Walker Jr. could step right in as a rookie.

Nicknamed “The Franchise” at Northwestern, the three-year starter was hugely productive in college but just as importantly showed the unit leadership the Colts crave.

“He’s done a great job,” Pagano said. “He hasn’t missed a beat. With the first unit, he’s called every defensive snap in camp. He gets guys lined up. He makes the close call. He makes the coverage checks. He knows formations, knows personnel. So he came in and he’s been trained very, very well.”

Walker’s father was a football coach, and so he has been studying film since his youth.

“I try to make sure I know my job and where to line up and where to make sure that everybody else is lined up,” Walker said. “I’m just a football player, that’s it. I just like to go out there and help my team make a play on the field and win games.”

THE BEHEMOTHS

Fourth-round picks Zach Banner (6-9, 360) and Grover Stewart (6-4, 347) aren’t just big. They’re unusually skilled and athletic for their size. It remains to be seen if either can become a factor this season, but both are obviously in the long-term plans -- Banner at right tackle, Stewart somewhere on the defensive line.

“It’s like an eclipse, isn’t it? He’s a giant,” Pagano said of Banner. “He’s got some work to do physically. He’s a big, big man and we’re going to go to work on reshaping that big body. I mean, just looking out there it’s scary how big this guy is. He can barely fit in the locker room but he moved around okay. He did some good things. I think if he works and the weight staff and our nutrition people, we all get our hands on this guy, he’s got some rare, rare traits.”

Because of the combination of physical reshaping and the major adjustments to playing right tackle at the NFL level, Banner is more of a project. Stewart, on the other hand, is giving early indications that the jump from Division II Albany (Ga.) State won’t be that big a deal.

“A big, big man that’s got really good feet and really good quickness for his size,” Pagano said. “ So he’s going to be really good at the point in the run game, and then as much sub as we play, you’re sticking a guy in there versus 11 personnel – we’re 65 percent sub defense now. So to have a guy in there that not only can command a double team in the run game, he’s going to give you some pass rush in there instead of just pocket push. … he’s going to win a lot of those one-on-one matchups.”

Stewart worked primarily at nose tackle in rookie camp but played all across the defensive front in college, racking up 27 career sacks.

Asked about making the big jump in level of competition, Stewart was unconcerned.

“Everybody puts on their pads like I do,” he said.

His are just a little bigger.

THE BIG TARGETS

After signing 6-2, 215-pound Kamar Aiken as a free agent, the Colts didn’t draft any more wide receivers. But they continued to pile up the big bodies in college free agency, bringing in Trey Griffey (6-2, 209), Jerome Lane Jr. (6-3, 226) and Johnathan “Bug” Howard (6-4, 221). 

It’s no coincidence.

“Yeah, because we’re small,” Pagano said. “You guys see the roster and we’ve been that way. Other than (Donte) Moncrief … we don’t have size out there. You get guys in here – Griffey is in here. Obviously he’s got great bloodlines (Ken Griffey Jr. is his father). He’s a big guy. Bug Howard is a big target. Those guys, when you have size like that, it’s all about matchups. You guys know that. 

“It’s kind of like when you get big guys like that, they’re always open. They’re always open. They may be covered, but they are always open. Big guys like that can get away from press. They’re more physical and they can body smaller DBs. We made a point and an emphasis of trying to get bigger, faster and younger. Again, we did that and it’s always nice to have a big target out there, especially when you get in the red area.”

Griffey decided to pursue football in high school abandoning baseball, the sport of his father and grandfather. Lane’s dad was a bruising NBA power forward who became famous for shattering backboards.

“Growing up I was playing basketball, I loved basketball, I thought I was going to be 6-6, but that didn’t work out too well,” Lane said. “I had more fun in football so I just transitioned to football and I’m just having fun.

“You learn how to box out players and go up for the rebound, that’s playing receiver, boxing out the defender, going up and getting the ball at its highest point, bringing it down and securing it. Just little things like that.”

THE SPECIALISTS

Adam Vinatieri is still around -- but at age 44, you have to wonder for how long. But with Pat McAfee’s retirement and the release of Matt Overton, the Colts will have a new punter, kickoff specialist and long-snapper.
So change is coming to what has been the Colts’ most consistently reliable, and excellent, unit.

The Colts brought in two kickers, Rigoberto Sanchez (Hawaii) and Josh Gable, a converted soccer player. Sanchez also punted and kicked off in college, while Gable -- known primarily for his trick-shot videos on YouTube -- reportedly has made an 82-yard field goal in practice. 

“Obviously, (Vinatieri) is still our guy, but you’ve always got to look ahead and build for the future,” Pagano said.

Special teams coach Tom McMahon has a knack for finding quality kickers. The two most recent challengers to Vinatieri were Cody Parkey and Brandon McManus, who found success elsewhere.

For the moment, Thomas Hennessy, an undrafted free agent from Duke, is the long-snapper, standing as heir-apparent to a job held down by Overton from 2012-16 and Justin Snow from 2000-11.

“Tommy does a great job of finding these guys,” Pagano said. “He does it every single year and he knows the league inside and out. Every year come draft time he knows every snapper. He knows every punter, every kicker, every dual guy that there is. I don’t think there is a guy in the league that does a better job evaluating talent when it comes to special teams than Tommy McMahon. He’s done it before and he did it again.”
 

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