It’s a rare (healthy) offseason for Colts’ Malik Hooker

Malik Hooker (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Seventeen rookies dot the roster and are going through their first offseason with the Indianapolis Colts.

Malik Hooker makes it 18. He’s not a rookie, hasn’t been one since the Colts snatched him with the 15th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

But there’s a definite rookie-ish glint in Hooker’s eyes and spring in his step nonetheless.

“This is my first actual offseason where I can fully do everything; work out and everything,’’ he said Tuesday. “So it’s going great for me.’’

As a much-hyped rookie – remember Chuck Pagano comparing him to Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed? – Hooker spent his offseason virtually out of sight. He still was in rehab mode after undergoing surgery following his final season at Ohio State to address a hernia and torn labrum in his hip.

A freakish sideline collision in week 7 against Jacksonville resulted in Hooker tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee, and again led to an offseason of extended work with the team’s training and rehab staff.

Even though he would miss two regular season games with a hip issue and the second-round playoff loss at Kansas City with a foot injury, Hooker avoided any post-2018 medical procedures.

“No surgeries for me,’’ he said with a wide grin.

Considering the previous two summers, you miss it?

“No,’’ Hooker said, laughing. “That’s what I said to the training staff now. They tell me all the time, ‘You’ll never stop in no more.’ I said, ‘I’ve been with you for two years.’

“It’s going to be great for me. I’m excited for this year for myself, mentally, emotionally and physically because this is the best I’ve been since college.’’

Frank Reich could only rely on video to consider what Hooker would bring to his defense last season, and then it was a small sample size. Before suffering his season-ending knee injury against the Jaguars, Hooker had roamed for a team-high three interceptions and four passes defensed in seven games.

“I didn’t have a history with him before,’’ Reich said. “So last year I knew Malik’s reputation as a playmaker, as a ballhawk.

“But if I’m just focusing on this year, I just see a guy who is dialed-in, not just physically, but mentally. I just see him dialed-in.’’

When it’s 11-on-11 – offense vs. defense – Reich notices Hooker reacting, flowing the football. He notices his instincts taking over, and getting better with each practice.

“I see a difference in the way he is moving, making plays on the ball,’’ Reich said. “He just seems to be, in every aspect of the game, a notch or two higher.

“So I think that going into this offseason healthy has served him well.’’

If there is an overriding reason for what appears to be a better Malik Hooker, it probably can be tied to him being a more healthy Malik Hooker. Everyone seems to agree he’s more self-assured.

“I can’t put words in his mouth,’’ Reich said, “but physically feeling confident. This is a physical game. When you’re feeling good physically, it plays out into your body language and into your mindset when you feel like you can make the plays that you normally make. My guess is, Malik is feeling that.’’

Yes he is. Finally.

By all accounts, Hooker defied the odds by returning as quickly as he did from the ACL surgery. He was in the starting lineup for the 2018 opener against Cincinnati, roughly 11 months after his rookie season ended.

Every aspect of his rehab and each member of his supporting cast insisted he was ready to return. It simply was time.

In retrospect, Hooker conceded he might have rush it “a little bit,’’ but quickly added “we felt it was best to get on the field when I did.’’

Even so, it took more than a month for Hooker’s mind to get on board with the decision. It wasn’t until the sixth game, he said, “when I actually felt like, ‘Nothing’s going to happen. I can move great and nothing’s going to happen and not re-injure it.’’

Over the first month of 2018, Hooker believed he was playing at a high level. A review of video – comparing the first five games with the rest of the season – told a different story.

“I could tell a big difference, just the movement I could do and my burst and stuff like that coming out of breaks,’’ he said. “You can definitely see a huge difference. First half of the season I felt like I played just OK. Second half I felt like I was more productive.

“I was fine physically. It was just all mental.’’

Finally, Hooker seems poised to be the player the Colts hoped he would be when they took him in the first round of the ’17 draft. He’s 6-1 and 212 pounds, and possesses the instincts to be a top-end centerfielder for Matt Eberflus’ defense.

“I feel like coming in my rookie year I did a great job of showing the type of player I can be before the injury happened,’’ he said. “Last year was a little bit more quiet.

“Then this year is the year I’m going to be the player the Colts brought me here to be.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

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