INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – What should you expect in the Indianapolis Colts’ preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks Thursday night?
Here’s what to look for at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field.
Kickoff: 10 p.m.
Broadcast: FOX59 (also streaming on FOX59.com in the Indy market)
He’s back: Welcome back, 12. The last time we saw Andrew Luck under center and under the gun was 585 days ago. On Jan. 1, 2017 he led a last-second comeback against the Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium. Remember his last pass? A 1-yard TD to Jack Doyle.
The ensuing 20 months have included surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, rehab, stalled rehab in mid-October when soreness and swelling sent him to the injured reserve list, a trip to the Netherlands, a trip to the West Coast to work with throwing gurus Tom House and Adam Dedeaux, more rehab, a calculated training camp regimen and, finally, Thursday night.
“Yeah, it has been a while. A long time,” Luck said. “I will be nervous.”
Luck’s workload probably will range between 12 and 20 plays, maybe even a full quarter. Frank Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni would like for him to experience a range of situations – third-and-1, third-and-long, ideally some red-zone snaps – but they will game plan accordingly with left tackle Anthony Castonzo out with a hamstring injury.
As much as Luck’s done during his arduous rehab process, he’s not faced live action. It’s one thing going through practices wearing a red jersey in a controlled environment. It’s entirely different when defenders are bearing down, and have no intention of pulling up.
Luck’s initial objective is simply to return to playing the position.
“That I can go out and throw a football, hand it off and take a snap and stick to some good fundamentals and some good technique and not do anything crazy,” he said.
Youth movement: Chris Ballard’s 90-player camp roster resembles so many across the NFL. It’s loaded with youth. The Colts are carrying 26 players who have yet to appear in a regular-season game. That includes 21 rookies and 11 draft picks.
The difference in Indy is Ballard and Reich are expecting several rookies to contribute immediately, even start. That includes Quenton Nelson, the starting left guard from day 1; Darius Leonard, a good bet to be the starting weak-side linebacker; Braden Smith, likely the top backup guard; Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay, who’ll be in the thick of a deep defensive line rotation; wideout Deon Cain and running backs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins.
All were part of Ballard’s humongous draft class.
One name to keep an eye on: Skai Moore. He’s an undrafted rookie out of South Carolina and has gotten serious reps with the No. 1 defense with Anthony Walker dealing with a groin injury.
Keep one name in mind when watching Moore: Gary Brackett. He made the roster as an undrafted rookie out of Rutgers in 2003 and developed into a solid starter in Tony Dungy’s 4-3 defense.
Moore’s enthusiasm rivals his sideline-to-sideline mobility on the field.
“I’m going to treat (Thursday) like the National Championship, to be honest,” he said. “It’s my first NFL game and I’m excited. I’m going to come out there full speed and just try to make as many plays as possible.”
Moore is one candidate to extend the Colts’ streak of having an undrafted rookie make the opening day roster to 20.
Everything amplifies Thursday against the Seahawks when Reich discovers which players are up to the challenge, and which might shrink when things go live.
“Some guys flash just because they see the game and I’ve always felt like the guys who have the ‘it’ factor, the game slows down for them when the lights turn on,” Reich said. “We are looking for when the lights go on in the stadium on game day, who rises up and makes plays?”
Nelson debut: Nelson hasn’t disappointed during the first two weeks of camp. He’s been a rock – literally – on the offensive line. Now, it’s game day. Moving forward, Nelson will have to meet the lofty standard of being the 6th overall pick in the draft.
“We all know – everyone in the world seems to know – that he was a great pick and a sure-fire great player in this league,” Reich said. “Well, I mean I believe that’s all true, but I don’t care. You’ve got to go out and prove it. He’s got to go out and prove it.
“It’s good for all these guys, but especially for those rookies . . . to really get challenged because the game picks up even a little bit faster when you’re going against someone else.”
Backup plan(s): T.Y. Hilton and Ryan Grant have established themselves as the top two wideouts. That according to Reich and Sirianni. Then what? Chester Rogers has had his moments in camp, but he’s done little to cement the No. 2 spot. Cain has had more “Aha!” moments than anyone not named T.Y. Hilton, but he’s a rookie.
It’s time for some clarity on the depth chart behind Hilton and Grant. A sleeper might be K.J. Brent, who turned some heads when he beat Quincy Wilson on a deep post and hauled in a 40-ish-yard TD pass from Luck.
Speaking of backups and rotations, how will position coach Tom Rathman dole out playing time with his running backs? Marlon Mack is the listed starter ahead of Robert Turbin, and each is immersed in a strong camp. Remember, though, Turbin will miss the first four games of the season while serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy.
We won’t be surprised if Hines and Wilkins are given heavy workloads. The coaching staff is trying to find multiple ways of utilizing Hines’ speed and big-play talents, and the 6-1, 216-pound Wilkins is emerging as a power presence in the backfield.