Colts asking Michael Pittman Jr., Jonathan Taylor to take big step in a hurry

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INDIANAPOLIS – Their transition to the next level – the highest level – is akin from going from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye.

Brace yourself Michael Pittman Jr. You, too, Jonathan Taylor. Ditto, several other members of the Indianapolis Colts’ 2020 draft class.

Minus on-field offseason work and without benefit of four preseason games – yes, they can be irritating, but are so very invaluable to rookies – Pittman, Taylor and others must be up to speed Sunday at Jacksonville. The regular season finally is here, and it never has provided much of an easing-in period.

“As far as rookies coming into their own, I think everybody is a little different and every position is a little different,’’ offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “We know the games are different, right?’’

Right.

The Colts’ bid to re-establish themselves as a legitimate playoff contender – they’ve been on the outside looking in in four of the last five seasons – will be led by a cast of grizzled veterans. Philip Rivers. Justin Houston. T.Y. Hilton. Jack Doyle. DeForest Buckner. Anthony Castonzo, Ryan Kelly and a proven offensive line.

But youth will be served as well: 31 of the 53 players are 25 or younger. That includes 10 rookies.

Fifth-round pick Danny Pinter has emerged as the movable part on the interior of the offensive line. The Ball State product is the backup at both guard spots and center.

Sixth-rounder Isaiah Rodgers is the fifth corner, but might be the Colts’ kick returner.

The spotlight, though, will shine brightest on a pair of second-rounders: Pittman and Taylor.

Remember, Chris Ballard and Frank Reich went into the April draft intent on adding pop to the Rivers-led offense.

“We knew we needed to add some explosive playmakers,’’ Ballard said after the draft dust had settled. “We didn’t care where they were at, whether it was at wideout, tight end, running back.’’

It was at wideout and running back.

Pittman averaged 14.7 yards per catch and generated 19 touchdowns at USC. Reich is expected to probe for advantageous one-on-one matchups with him, and allow Pittman to use his 6-4, 223-pound size to win most of them.

He’s listed as the team’s fourth wideout behind a three-receiver set of T.Y Hilton, Zach Pascal and Parris Campbell. But let’s not kid ourselves, Pittman will get his share of targets from the outset.

Taylor? He peeled off highlights on a weekly basis during his three years at Wisconsin: 6,174 yards in 41 games, 6.7 yards per attempt, 12 games of at least 200 yards, 50 touchdowns, including 13 that covered at least 29 yards.

While the 5-10, 226-pound Taylor is best known for his 4.3 speed, he displayed power during training camp. On one play, he squared up against and shrugged off Tavon Wilson, a 6-0, 208-pound safety.

“I embrace it a lot,’’ Taylor said of being a physical back. “I mean, coaches have always told me that the best player is the guy who is moving the chains. He is laying down across the first-down marker. I am always a guy who embraces keeping the chains moving and in order to do that, you have to be physical.

“You have to be able to grind out some yards. Sometimes you have to be able to just hit a big one. But I think being able to play in between the tackles is a huge deal and I take pride in that.’’

 In another scenario, Taylor could be viewed as the incoming workhorse. But he’s joining a backfield that features Marlon Mack, who’s coming off a career-best 1,091-yard season.

“Marlon is the starter,’’ Reich insisted. “Marlon has earned it.’’

However, Reich was quick to add a Colts’ ground game that ranked 7th in the NFL a year ago – the 2,130 yards were the 9th-most in franchise history – will be a tag-team effort.

“I see it as a one-one punch,’’ he said.

But now, welcome to the NFL, one that didn’t afford all rookies that transitional offseason and preseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Through our practices and through obviously our film studies on them coming out of college, we know they’re playmakers,’’ Sirianni said of Pittman and Taylor. “Just like any playmaker on our team, we want to make sure we get them touches and get the ball in their hands. When we get those guys a ball and a touch, good playmakers make plays and get you yards.

“They are no different than the other playmakers on our team. We want to get them touches because we know what they can do.’’

But there’s no question the rookies are heading into a new stratosphere of competition.

“We know the NFL game is different than the college game,’’ Sirianni said. “Michael is not going to be quite as open as he was at USC. Jonathan is not going to have quite as big a hole as he did at Wisconsin. Those will close up quicker.

“We practice so hard that we feel like we’re getting good game reps in practice. That’s how we think we get better. Hopefully that’s helped them in their development and I know that’s helped them in their development so that’s not brand new for them in the live bullets there on Sunday.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

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