Colts’ defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus always looking for rookies to have ‘meaningful moments’

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Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus on the sidelines during an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus on the sidelines during an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s a shared objective for Kwity Paye and the Indianapolis Colts: make an immediate impact, yes as a pass rusher but also as an all-around defensive end.

But the first step for anyone being assimilated into coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense is making a meaningful first impression.

There needs to be a flash.

Remember the 2018 training camp? Darius Leonard was a second-round draft pick – unheralded out of South Carolina State but highly coveted by general manager Chris Ballard and his personnel staff – who saw his offseason progress impeded by a groin injury. He worked tirelessly with Eberflus and linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi on cone drills, assignment alignment and recognizing various keys so critical to the weak-side position, and finally was ready for the start of his rookie camp.

On the second play of 11-on-11 drills, he intercepted an Andrew Luck pass.

“You could tell he was special from the beginning,’’ Eberflus said earlier this week on a Zoom conference call.

There’s yet to be that flashpoint opportunity for Paye, but only because the Colts’ offseason work consisted of two weeks of low-impact work. Things won’t ramp up until players converge on Grand Park Sports Campus July 27 for the start of camp.

Then there needs to be something that reaffirms Paye’s worthiness to step in from day 1 and contribute. He’s expected to be the starting right defensive end and be a steady pass-rush presence.

One of Eberflus’ defensive pillars is a player giving 100% effort on every snap; violators are hit with “loafs’’ in post-game evaluations. But playing time also is earned on the practice field, and that’s especially true with a rookie, regardless the potential that accompanies his draft pedigree.

“There’s usually some moment,’’ Eberflus said, quickly adding, “it’s not necessarily a moment, but there are moments during the course early on where you look at this and say, ‘Man, this guy is special.’’’

That was the case with Leonard, who would quiet his early critics by piling up a club-record and league-high 163 tackles and being named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

It also was the case with Khari Willis and Julian Blackmon.

Willis, a 2019 fourth-round pick, made a lasting first impression with an overall awareness so critical to handling safety responsibilities. He appeared in 14 games as a rookie and responded to being given his first career start in week 5 against the Raiders with nine tackles, including one for a loss, and a pass defensed.

Eberflus knew Willis would become a fixture sooner rather than later.

“What we noticed right away was his instincts, his ability to process and then to really move fast to the football,’’ he said. “After watching last year’s tape, he’s one of our best guys in terms of being able to be in a low zone and being able to break on a ball when it’s in the flat or in the curl zone.

“So, he’s special that way and we noticed that pretty quick about him.’’

Willis has started 24 of 29 games, including the playoffs, and given every indication he’ll be a presence on the back end of Eberflus’ defense for the foreseeable future.

Blackmon? Even though his rookie offseason was spent rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in Utah’s Pac-12 championship game appearance, he made it impossible for the coaches to ignore what he might bring to the defense.

One day, Eberflus and safeties coach Alan Williams put Blackmon – a 6-0, 187-pounder who transitioned from cornerback to safety at Utah – through drills with the cornerbacks. There was one of those moments.

“We have him side-by-side with the corners and we’re doing the break drills, the movement drills that DBs do and we were looking at each other and like, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy is as good as a corner. He’s moving as quick and as fast as a corner,’’’ Eberflus said. “We knew right then he had that special quickness because you could see that on tape, he had the ball skills, and he was a ballhawk-type of guy.

“So, he proved that and he’s going to prove it again.’’

Despite being limited in practice as his rehab continued, Blackmon appeared in the final 16 games and started the last 15, including the playoff loss at Buffalo. He had 42 tackles, two interceptions and six passes defensed.

Blackmon’s penchant for impactful plays included a game-sealing interception in week 6 against Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and forcing a fumble early in overtime that set the stage for a win over Green Bay. Against the Packers, Blackmon split a pair of blockers and poked the ball out of Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s hands. Four plays later, Rodrigo Blankenship delivered a 34-31 victory with a 39-yard field goal.

Might Paye follow the lead of Leonard, Willis and Blackmon?

The 21st overall pick in the April draft took full advantage of the condensed offseason schedule – rookies stuck around for a third week of work – to complete his transition from Michigan to the NFL.

“It’s like now I wake up and be like, ‘Man, I have no school. I have nothing to do but focus on football,’’’ he said. “It’s just fun now. Just to be able to focus on one thing, yeah, that’s cool.

“I feel like I always took pride in what I did on the football field. Now I just get to be a better version of myself because I have more time in the day to really hone in on my craft.’’

Paye was the top-rated defensive end on the Colts’ draft board, but now must prove worthy of the status.

“It means a lot coming to a team that really wants me and a team that had me first on their board,’’ he said. “For me, I’m just going to come in every single day and give it everything I have.’’

Even though Paye hasn’t had an opportunity to flash during a full-speed setting, Eberflus has seen nothing to temper his enthusiasm.

“Kwity is everything we’re looking for in terms of a character of men and what he brings to the table, and you can see that on his tape,’’ he said. “He has just been outstanding so far with us.

“Some of the things that you look for, you say, ‘What makes him so great? What are the examples of that?’ I would say that his attention to detail. You can tell when you ask him questions about a particular defense, he can dive into the detail and absorb that in a quick manner and be able to give it back to us on the practice field . . . he can pick up a big amount of scheme in a short period of time.

“That’s going to accelerate his play and accelerate him even faster, so we are excited about that.’’

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

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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