Hilton emerges as Colts’ veteran presence, leader of receiving corps

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T.Y. Hilton

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – In one breath, Chuck Pagano was reluctant to dole out individual praise after his Indianapolis Colts went through another offseason workout.

Remember, players are not in pads and contact is prohibited. This is not the time to inflate egos.

“I’m hesitant to say anything nice about anybody because when you start writing good stuff about anybody, complacency starts to set in,” Pagano said earlier this week.

Then, he went against form.

The subject: T.Y. Hilton.

“T.Y. is having as good an offseason as anybody, probably better than anybody right now,” Pagano said. “There’s a lot of good stuff going on out there, but I’ve never seen this guy practice as fast as he’s practicing right now and competing at the level he’s competing at and leading the way he’s leading.

“He’s done it day in and day out.”

It was Tuesday and Hilton looked the part of two-time Pro Bowl receiver. He glided across the practice field. He slashed, cut sharply. He caught Andrew Luck passes on crossing routes and occasionally beat a cornerback on deep patterns. He went up for one high pass and secured it despite nearly getting clothes-lined by a defensive back.

“I’m just putting forth the effort, helping my team,” Hilton said. “Last year didn’t go as planned, but nothing I can do but control what I can control. I’m just trying to get better, better my teammates and just continue to work and push those guys.”

Part of Hilton’s motivation moving forward is the disappointing end to 2015. He joined Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne as the only players in franchise history with three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons and appeared in his second Pro Bowl, but the Colts missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

This was new territory for Hilton. Like Luck, he was a member of the cornerstone draft class of 2012 that primarily was responsible for three consecutive trips to the postseason after the 2-14 train wreck of ’11.

“It hurt because I had never been home after week 17,” Hilton said. “Just watching the playoffs in general and not being able to play, that really hurt.

“Right now I’m just doing what I can for us to get better and continue to play after week 17.”

That means assuming more of a leadership role as he enters year 5, and after signing a five-year, $65 million extension last August.

No longer can Hilton defer to another veteran’s presence in the receivers’ room. No longer can he follow the lead of Reggie Wayne, or even Andre Johnson last season.

Now, Hilton is the veteran presence. At 26.

Of the 12 receivers on the roster, five are undrafted rookies. Two others – return specialist Quan Bray and Josh Stangby – have yet to catch an NFL pass. The only proven receivers are Hilton, Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett.

Has it sunk that Hilton is the “old man” of the group?

“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “I continue to push those guys and continue to lead by example and be more vocal, then I think those guys will follow.”

Early in his career, Wayne shadowed Harrison. He watched and picked up tips from a player who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.

Paying it forward, Wayne tutored Hilton.

“Do what I do,” he advised. “Do it how I do it.”

Now, it’s Hilton’s turn to show the younger players how it’s done.

“(Wayne) told me the years he wanted to get to (before retiring),” he said. “He said when it was my time he just wanted to make sure I was ready (to take over). It was going to come upon a time he was going to retire.

“I had to step up and lead. He showed me everything I need to lead by example. Whenever they have a question, I’m always there to answer them or tell them what they need to do or how they can get better.

“I’m always pushing those guys. I just want the best for them.”

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51