Colts’ youth-laden roster ready for Sunday’s matchup

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - AUGUST 20: Nick Boyle #86 of the Baltimore Ravens leaps for extra yardage after a reception against Darius Leonard #53 and Nate Hairston #27 of the Indianapolis Colts in the first quarter of a preseason game at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 20, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Who are the Indianapolis Colts, this collection of rookies, veterans and a kicker who refuses to acknowledge Father Time?

We’ll have a much better idea late Sunday afternoon.

Until then, all we really know is these guys will represent one of the youngest teams in the NFL. There are 22 players (excluding ageless Adam Vinatieri, punter Rigoberto Sanchez and long snapper Luke Rhodes) who have started five or fewer games and 15 with zero NFL starts. That includes 10 rookies.

No one in a position of authority has attempted to steer anyone’s attention away from the obvious.

“I mean, it’s who we are,’’ first-time head coach Frank Reich said during training camp, “so we embrace it and we look at the positives. We have an opportunity to create a foundation that we believe will be successful this year, but to build in the long term as well.

“It can be at both ends. Nobody is sacrificing. There has never been one discussion of, ‘Hey, let’s sacrifice and go younger so that we can be better (in the future).’ We are aiming to win this year and putting the best 11 on the field.’’

Again, those best 11 – actually 22 – will have a decidedly youthful tint.

The Colts might start four rookies: guard Quenton Nelson, weakside linebacker Darius Leonard, middle ‘backer Skai Moore and running back Jordan Wilkins. Kemoko Turay would make it five if the Colts go with their second-pick instead of veteran Margus Hunt at right defensive end.

Also, it’s possible Moore is supplanted by Anthony Walker, who returned to practice this week. The latter entered training camp as the starting inside ‘backer only to miss most of the preseason with a groin injury.

Not surprisingly, the last time the franchise was so rookie-heavy was in the reboot year of 2012. That season, the opening-day starting lineup included five as well: quarterback Andrew Luck, tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, tight end/fullback Dominique Jones and linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Freeman wasn’t technically a rookie, but his only prior NFL experience was with the Tennessee Titans during the ’08 preseason.

Regardless how it shakes out Sunday, youth will be served. But will that adequately serve the Colts?

“They drafted us for a reason,’’ Turay said. “They see potential in us.’’

With that potential comes growing pains. Luck was instrumental in leading the Colts to an 11-5 record and the playoffs as a rookie, but also suffered 18 interceptions. That remains a career high.

“Do we expect a few more quote/unquote rookie errors? Maybe one or two more,’’ Reich said. “We don’t want that and we are going to do everything we can do to prevent that. They’re responsible.

“But hey, we expect them to bring juice and are expecting good things from those guys. Be productive players. Everyone has a role and every role is important.’’

Reich was a third-round pick of Buffalo in 1985 and made his first appearance in early December against the New York Jets. The most difficult issue a rookie faces in his first regular-season game?

“Just the confidence,’’ he said. “The confidence and belief just to get in there and to take the hits, to get it done, to make plays and say, ‘Yeah, I belong. I belong.’

“That’s a good moment when you, as a rookie, feel like you’re in a game, you’re doing your thing, it’s not just practice and I belong here.’’

Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni agreed it’s likely to take a couple of snaps for the rookies to get their bearings and the confidence “they need to go out there and play at a high level.

“But these guys are still high-level football players that we have on this team that made the 53-man roster for a reason. We have a high belief that they are up for the challenge, right? We know that there will be some mistakes. We understand that. It’s a different game that they played at Ole Miss (Wilkins) or that they played at North Carolina State (Hines) or at Notre Dame (Nelson).

“But it’s also the reason that Chris Ballard and his staff drafted these guys and picked them up as free agents for this opportunity right here.’’

The next step for the youngsters: Sunday’s opener.

Ready or not.

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