Protecting Colts’ ‘meal ticket’ prime objective for new O-line coach Dave DeGuglielmo


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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – First and foremost, it’s about keeping your priorities in order.

Yes, Dave DeGuglielmo has been given the security code of the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line room. He’s been entrusted with blending the old (Anthony Castonzo, Jack Mewhort, Austin Howard and Matt Slauson) with the brand, spanking new (most notably rookie guards Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith), while also mixing in the relatively new (Ryan Kelly, Joe Haeg, Denzelle Good, Le’Raven Clark, Deyshawn Bond and Jeremy Vujnovich).

But while learning the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of his linemen, DeGuglielmo always – always – keeps his priorities straight.

Priority 1: make certain there’s always food on the table.

Bear with us.

As part of Frank Reich’s staff, DeGuglielmo is aware of what makes the franchise, any franchise for that matter, tick. And that would be the quarterback.

In this instance, that would be Andrew Luck.

“Hopefully we’re going to have ‘the man’ back there,’’ DeGuglielmo said this week. “That’s the one thing that increases the pressure on our group. When you have a guy, especially a guy that’s been injured, standing back there, you have to understand that’s the man that lets you eat.

“You want to eat, (so) you take care of the meal ticket. That’s the way it goes, and it really doesn’t matter who’s back there. That guy is allowing you to eat. If Jacoby Brissett’s back there, we’ve got to make sure he walks off the field clean as a whistle because he allows us to eat next week.’’

We’ve been down this road before, and it’s been a rocky journey since Luck’s arrival as the first overall pick in the 2012 draft.

The Colts have tried, and too often failed, at providing Luck with an adequate offensive line. There have been failed draft picks (Hugh Thornton, Khaled Holmes, Zach Banner), and veteran free agents who didn’t pan out as expected (Gosder Cherilus, Donald Thomas, Todd Herremans).

The result has been Luck absorbing constant physical abuse. He’s been sacked 156 times in 70 regular-season starts and hit while throwing more than 400 hundred times. The Colts have allowed a league-high 691 QB hits since 2012.

The most glaring byproduct of the ineffective protection was the torn labrum in Luck’s right shoulder that forced him to miss last season, but let’s not forget the litany of injury issues: lacerated kidney, concussion, right shoulder, right elbow, right thumb and left ankle.

With Luck looking on from the sideline last season, the abuse transferred to Brissett. The Colts allowed 112 QB hits and Brissett was sacked a league-high 52 times.

To DeGuglielmo’s point, it’s tough to eat when the primary provider is either in the trainer’s room or on injured reserve. Like it or not, he and his position group enter the upcoming season squarely in the spotlight.

“It’s really not my job to worry about those things,’’ he said. “I just have to work every day to help my men be proficient at their job.

“It’s not an easy job. We know in this league and this division it’s very difficult. There are some tremendous defenses and defensive players.’’

What disturbed general manager Chris Ballard most during last season was the Colts twice being physically manhandled by Jacksonville. The Jaguars were dominant in their sweep, including a 27-0 blowout at Lucas Oil Stadium that featured 10 sacks of Brissett. The Tennessee Titans sacked Brissett eight times in a 20-16 win in Indy.

“We’re just going to work every day to solve the little problems and hopefully that will solve the big problems,’’ DeGuglielmo said.

The final month of the Colts’ offseason program and training camp will determine who plays where, but we’re not opposed to offering an early projection: Castonzo at left tackle, Nelson at left guard, Kelly at center, Smith at right guard and Howard at right tackle. If healthy, Mewhort offers proven depth at both guard spots. Slauson could start at right guard or be Kelly’s backup. The team values Haeg’s ability to play four spots.

However it shakes out, the Colts seemingly have the most promising offensive line options since Luck’s arrival. Of course, the bar is relatively low.

As important as the top-to-bottom talent level is, no one should dismiss the group’s disposition. Ballard wanted linemen that brought an edge to the lineup.

Ballard insisted Nelson, the 6th overall pick in last month’s draft, was “the easiest pick I’ve ever been a part of. By far.

“He’s going to make Ryan Kelly better. He’s going to make Castonzo better.’’

Along with possessing freakish talent, the 6-5, 325 Nelson also has a nasty streak.

“I would say that I’m a very nasty offensive lineman that wants to finish his man every play,’’ he said. “In life I’m a really nice person, and then when I get on the football field, it’s time to flip the switch and do my job to the best of my ability to help the team win.

“You see some linemen that will do their job for three seconds instead of finishing their guy, even when the ball is past them. I just think that each play you do that and finish your guy, it takes a toll on them during the game and can really wear them down, especially when you have all five guys on the offensive line doing it and even the tight ends and receivers.’’

DeGuglielmo isn’t dwelling on what went wrong in the past, and isn’t promising an immediate upgrade.

“It’s a process,’’ he said. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow and we’re not going to show up and give up no sacks every week. It’s going to take some time for us to learn to play together and play in sync and apply some of the principles that Frank’s bringing with him or Nick’s bringing with him.’’

Improving the efficiency of the offensive line, he added, “is a program-wide issue that needs to be addressed. I think they’re addressing it both from the personnel standpoint and some of the things were doing offensively. I think the guys we’re bringing in here are suited to what we’re looking for in terms of changing a little bit of the personality of the room.

“I just think the whole puzzle has to be put together the right way. We’re working on that.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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