A TIME TO IMPROVE

Kelvin Hayden, a fourth-year cornerback, is among the Colts players participating in the team's off-season conditioning program. He is among the team's most improved players in recent seasons, and he said the off-season program is a huge reason.

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Off-Season Program Key to Team, Individual Development

INDIANAPOLIS – Kelvin Hayden won't say April is his favorite month of the year, or even his favorite part of the NFL off-season.

In terms of imance, though . . .

Hayden, a starting cornerback for the Colts, has developed in three NFL seasons into one of the team's top young defensive players. He was, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said, the team's most improved player in 2006. Dungy said he might have been last season, too.

Such development, Hayden said, can't happen in September. Rather, he said it happens during the off-season, which is a reason you find him at the Colts' Training Facility this time of year.

Because April is far from the easiest month for an NFL player.

But Hayden said its importance can't be underestimated.

"This is where it starts," Hayden said recently. "You can't go into the season thinking, 'This is my time to get ready.' If you do that, guys will have step on you, your teammates and the other team."

Hayden, who will enter his second season as a starter next season, is far from alone.

The Colts' off-season conditioning program began March 31, and although voluntary, Head Coach Tony Dungy said participation is key not only to individual and team development. For a team, the off-season is crucial as the beginning of game-plan development, conditioning and camaraderie.

For an individual, players not only participate in the conditioning program with Strength and Conditioning Coaches Jon Torine and Rich Howell, they meet individually with position coaches, reviewing the past season and preparing for the next.

"It's a big part of what we do," Dungy said. "You can get a lot of individualized work. You can make a lot of growth. I really think that's why a lot of young guys improve so much between their first and second year and between their second and third year.

"Kelvin Hayden can come in and sit down with (defensive backs coach) Alan Williams all spring, talk through different things and see exactly how it's supposed to be done, watch video, watch cutups and grow and learn.

"Then, he's ready to blossom in training camp."

Said Colts safety Matt Giordano, "It's definitely a good time to be here. This is a great off-season program. We all get faster and we all get strong. We all like the workouts. They're challenging.

"We feel like this helps and prepares us for training camp and also for the season."

The Colts traditionally open training camp later than nearly every NFL team. Dungy said a reason for that is the extensiveness of – and the players' commitment to – an off-season program that begins in late March and runs through July.

The off-season will include two May mini-camps and up to 14 organized team activities – or "OTAs," as they are commonly called around the league.

The Colts are scheduled to report to training camp in late July, and will play the Washington Redskins in the Hall of Fame Game on Sunday, August 3, in Canton, Ohio.

"It definitely happens in the offseason training program," Giordano said. "Coach Dungy always uses the saying, 'Death by inches,' and it starts in the off-season. If we take one play off, one drill off, or one conditioning program, or even a set off in the weight room, it goes a long way."

Dungy and Colts President Bill Polian each have long said a player makes his biggest improvement in the NFL between his rookie and second season. Colts third-year cornerback T.J. Rushing said the off-season program is a huge factor in that development.

"We all see the benefit of being here together, pushing each other, whether it's in the weight room or out there running in drill work or whatever," Rushing said. "I can't even explain how much better I think I got, just being here (last off-season), whether it's outside catching punts, doing footwork drills with other guys who have been here and done it before . . .

"I won't say it wouldn't have happened, but I'm saying the offseason program helped out a lot."

Hayden, a second-round selection in the 2005 NFL Draft from the University of Illinois, played wide receiver until his final year of college. He then played sparingly as a rookie and second-year player, returning an interception for the game-clinching touchdown in Super Bowl XLI.

Last season, he started 16 games, intercepting three passes, finishing third on the Colts with 117 tackles and leading the team with 12 pass breakups.

The off-season helped his development in a number of ways, he said.

"Coming into my rookie year, I was kind of overweight," he said. "In college, they don't give you nutritional information or stuff like that. In college, it's, 'I work out,' but once you get here, everybody does. You don't really understand until you go through it that your endurance and everything comes from what you put in your body. I really took that seriously."

Hayden also said the conditioning program improved his athleticism.

"When I came here, I wasn't as flexible as I am now," he said. "They're not going to give you anything you don't really need to work on. My whole thing is I took it real seriously. This is your job. You want to be the best at what you do. I really take the off-season program as serious as anybody."

As important as the physical is in the off-season, Hayden said the mental is as important. "It's all part of it," he said. "The mental part was tougher than the physical part. The more comfortable you get, the better. Understanding what you have to do is the main thing. The physical part is something everybody goes through. To have the mental part gives you the edge."

After his first season as a starter, Hayden said he needed an off-season this year. Still, he said he kept it relatively brief – about five or six weeks.

Then, he said, he started running to prepare for the conditioning program.

"When you're going about your day all day, not doing anything, it tends to catch up with you," he said. "My thing was, 'Get out there, run around.' A lot of guys, they may take month off and not be working real hard. You just want to be on top of things. That's one of the things I try to do, try to stay on top of things."

Hayden, told of Dungy's comments about his improvement thus far in his career, shrugged. He said he didn't consider his off-season approach anything unique. An NFL player working in April isn't unusual, he said.

Not considering the month's importance.

"That's my whole thing about it," Hayden said. "I don't mind work, I consider myself a hardworking guy. Anything you put in front of me, I consider it a task. I just want to conquer that task. It's just something I like to do. It's really no biggie to me.

"You want to get better and better every year. The older you get, the harder you have to work. My whole thing is continue to work hard and not get satisfied, to just try to get better, week in, week out, every day. This is the NFL. They say it's a window of opportunity.

"I just want my window to stay open as long as possible."

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