While Malik Hooker mends, Colts turn to rookie Khari Willis

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - AUGUST 24: Khari Willis #37 of the Indianapolis Colts tackles Kerrith Whyte #38 of the Chicago Bears during the first quarter of the preseason game at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 24, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Khari Willis’ learning curve is about to increase.

While starting safety Malik Hooker misses extended time after tearing the meniscus in one of his knees, the Indianapolis Colts’ fourth-round draft pick is expected to play a major role in picking up the slack.

“Now with Malik being out for a little bit, Khari’s role is significantly going to increase,’’ Frank Reich said Monday. “Every indication we have from Khari is this guy’s a ballplayer and he’s ready for this opportunity.’’

Willis already has seen extensive time in coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense, spelling both Hooker and Clayton Geathers. Through three games, he’s been on the field for 72 of 183 snaps (39%) and been credited with 11 tackles.

Now, the stakes increase.

“We expect these young guys to get better and better with each game,’’ Reich said.

Willis would become the third rookie to start this season, joining cornerback Rock Ya-Sin and linebacker Bobby Okereke. The Colts also are getting contributions from three other draft picks: wideout Parris Campbell, defensive end Ben Banogu and linebacker E.J. Speed.

That comes on the heels of the Class of 2018 having a significant impact on the franchise returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Five rookies started the season opener and 10 started at least one game. The Colts led the NFL in highest percent of snaps logged by rookies (22%). Linebacker Darius Leonard was named Defensive Rookie of the Year and joined guard Quenton Nelson in being named first-team All-Pro.

Willis admitted last week the current rookie class is learning on the fly.

“We came in and we’re still learning,’’ he said. “I think we still have a lot of room to grow, especially just with being rookies and how early it is in the year.

“I think it’s exciting for us and something we look forward to.’’

Extended playing time requires gaining the confidence of the coaching staff and teammates.

“That’s very true,’’ Willis said. “They’re the ones that are here. They’re here, and they know the ropes. They’ve been here. They’re the ones that got hot last year, and they’re the ones who had the playoff run.

“So we’re just coming in, learning from them, gaining their trust and showing them we can be a part of it.’’

Hooker suffered the knee injury during Sunday’s 27-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons. He missed the bulk of the third quarter while the medical staff evaluated his situation, then returned for the fourth quarter.

Reich wasn’t aware of Hooker’s injury when he addressed the media in his post-game conference.

“We were rotating those (safeties) through a little bit, and he had an injury in the game,’’ he said. “They put something around it. To Malik’s credit, he went back in and played with it afterwards.

“(He) felt some discomfort. Digging into it a little bit more, looks like he’s going to miss a little bit of time.’’

Initial reports project Hooker missing between 4-6 weeks. Reich said as of Monday afternoon the team hadn’t discussed whether placing Hooker on the injured reserve list was an option. If that’s done, he would miss at least eight weeks.

The knee issue is the latest injury to plague Hooker. He missed the final nine games of his rookie season after tearing two ligaments in his right knee against Jacksonville in week 7. Hooker missed three games last season, including the second-round playoff loss at Kansas City with a foot injury.

More medical matters

Reich was unable to provide an update on wideout T.Y. Hilton or linebacker Darius Leonard.

Hilton did not play in the second half against the Falcons after aggravating a quadriceps injury. Leonard missed the game after suffering a concussion in week 2 at Tennessee and remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol.

“With the concussion thing, it’s just going to be all protocol-related,’’ Reich said. “We’ve just got to check all those boxes.

“We’re just going to adhere by that protocol and make sure we’re taking care of Darius.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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