Previewing Indianapolis Colts training camp: Running backs

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 21: Marlon Mack #25 of the Indianapolis Colts runs for a touchdown in the 37-5 win against the Buffalo Bills at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 21, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A season of great expectations awaits, as does a second summer at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.

They go hand in hand.

After three months of offseason work and a five-week lull, the Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park July 24 for the start of training camp. They’re on the practice field for the first time the following day.

Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team coming off a 10-6 season and wild-card playoff appearance, and considered by many observers to be one of the trendy picks to make serious noise in the postseason.

Today: Running back

  • Starter: Marlon Mack
  • Backup: Spencer Ware
  • Swiss Army Knife: Nyheim Hines
  • Depth: Jordan Wilkins, Jonathan Williams

Mack attack: With all due respects to Frank Gore, Marlon Mack arguably is coming off the best season by a Colts running back in more than a decade. After dealing with a hamstring injury that limited him to one game and 10 carries in the first five weeks last season, the 2017 fourth-round draft established himself as a bona fide feature back.

Mack’s numbers over the final 13 games, including the postseason, were top-tier and more than adequate to complement the Andrew Luck-led passing game. He rushed for 1,068 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per attempt and 82.1 yards per game. He became the first Colt since Joe Addai in 2007 to rush for at least 100 yards four times in a season, and his 148 yards in the first-round win at Houston was a team postseason record.

What was missing? Consistency. In eight games, Mack averaged 5.5 yards per attempt and 112 yards per game. But in his other six, the averages plummeted to 3.1 and 33.8, respectively. On occasion, the Colts got away from their run game too quickly. But Mack also pointed a finger at himself. Too often, he insisted, he went down when he should have been able to maintain his balance and do more damage.

That has been one of his offseason focal points.

“Me personally, just hitting the hole more, getting through it, bursting through,’’ he said. “I could get better picking up my feet. I fell a couple of times (from) shoe tackles.

“That’s something I can definitely get better at.’’

Backup plan: No sooner had the Colts added Spencer Ware to their running backs room than the veteran informed Frank Reich of his versatility.

“I said, ‘You know I was an All-American quarterback, right?’’’ Ware offered, smiling as he recalled his multi-dimensional days at Princeton (Ohio) High School. “And he was like, ‘Oh, for real?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, all my offers were for quarterback coming out. I played baseball at LSU. I didn’t get a chance to really throw it in a game, but coach Andy Reid knows.’’’

Ware was a 2013 sixth-round pick of Seattle who spent the last four seasons with Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs. He had his best season in 2016 with 921 yards and three rushing touchdowns and 447 yards and two TDs on 42 receptions. Ware missed the ’17 season after damaging multiple ligaments in his right knee during the Chiefs’ third preseason game.

Whenever possible during practice, Ware limbered up his arm.

“(Reid) knows I was 100 percent, 1,000 percent on the completion in the QB rating in practice,’’ Ware said. “I never got the chance to really do it in a game, but you know just waiting on the opportunity.

“I value myself as being an athlete. Like I say all-around. The more I can do, the longer I can last.’’

Perhaps Ware represents the Colts’ emergency QB behind Luck and Jacoby Brissett.

The team, though, views him as a proven backup to Mack. Although Hines is coming off a standout rookie season, but his value is more as a receiver out of the backfield. He averaged a modest 3.7 yards on 85 rushes and carried the ball more than 10 times in a game just twice.

Ware, meanwhile, has appeared in 40 games with 18 starts. He’s averaged 4.6 yards per attempt and has a pair of 100-yard games on his resume. At 5-10 and 229 pounds, he should bring a physical presence to the running game.

Reich admitted he was attracted to Ware’s “physical toughness. You can’t see that as much (during offseason work), but just knowing his past, watching tape on him and his mentality. He fits our mold. This is a tough dude – tough yards, not afraid to block.

“He is the kind of guy you can count on to get tough yardage.’’

Speaking of Hines: Even though we don’t consider Hines the natural backup for Mack, no one should dismiss his importance to the offense. With his background as a receiver and speed, he’s a threat every time he’s on the field. That’s especially true in third-down situations or when Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni work him out of the slot as they probe for favorable matchups.

“Nyheim is the main third-down guy because of the stuff that he can do, right?’’ Reich said.

Hines generated 63 receptions last season, the third-most by a Colts rookie. His total trailed only Bill Brooks’ 65 (in 1086) and Marvin Harrison’s 64 (1996).

Worth noting: One of Reich’s offseason objectives was to seek improvement from a rushing attack that a year ago ranked No. 20 in yards per game (107.4) and No. 22 in yards per attempt (4.2).

“We have to run the football,’’ he said. “Our goal is going to be a top-5 rushing football team.’’

That’s a lofty goal considering how heavily Reich and Sirianni lean on Luck and his zillion options in the passing game. Last season, the offense operated on a 61.9-38.1 percent pass-run ratio. There might be a tad more balance this season, but no one should expect a ground-and-pound approach. The idea is to run more effectively and consistently, especially in the fourth quarter when protecting a lead is imperative.

But speaking of a top-5 rushing attack. Since 1968, the Colts have achieved that only five times. The last time was in 1994. The last time they were top-10 was in 2001 (No. 7).

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

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