Ashton Dulin sprinted down the far sideline at Hard Rock Stadium, barreling Miami Dolphins punt returner Jakeem Grant as Rigoberto Sanchez's punt hit the ground and bounced up in the air. Grant fielded the punt, and Dulin was in perfect position to make a tackle at the Miami 13-yard line.
That was the first big play Dulin made on special teams. The next one was a similar build-up. Only this time, Dulin recovered a fumble, helping the Colts keep a firm grasp on the game's momentum in the second half of Sunday's 27-17 win over the Dolphins.
Those are the kind of special teams plays Dulin, now in his third year with the Colts, has consistently made. But this year, Dulin's added a couple of splash plays on special teams to his resume — a fumble recovery for a touchdown in Week 2 against the Los Angeles Rams, and later in Week 4, that opportunistic fumble recovery on a muffed punt.
"It's not really the most glamorous thing or most glamorous plays or anything like that," Dulin said. "But it's tough, it's gritty and you just have to be able to have that mindset to do whatever it takes to help your team. And that's what special teams really is."
Special teams are a big reason why Dulin has developed himself into a valuable member of the Colts. The 6-foot-1, 215 pound wide receiver came to Indianapolis as an undrafted free agent in 2019 from Malone University, a small Division II school in Canton, Ohio that isn't known for football (and won't be, given it dropped its football program shortly after Dulin left.)
But while Malone didn't win much while Dulin was there, he did come away from Canton with a valuable lesson.
"I think that's just a big thing that helped me translate to the next step of playing in the NFL is having that mentality of do whatever it takes to help the team," Dulin said. "That was probably the biggest thing I took from Malone."
Dulin got on special teams his senior year, playing gunner and contributing on kickoff and punt return units, too. It's not always a given that a standout player on offense goes and plays special teams in college — Dulin is Malone's all-time record holder in receptions (189), receiving yards (3,188) and all-purpose yards (5,455); he also ran track — but his commitment has certainly paid off in the NFL.
"Special teams is one of those parts of the game where you have to be ready to go and run 100 miles per hour any given down," Dulin said.
Dulin's presence on special teams with the Colts has increased every year since he got here in 2019. He played 51 percent of the Colts' special teams snaps over his 13 games in 2019; that share increased to 61 percent in 2020 and now is up to 65 percent in 2021. Coach Frank Reich said Dulin is a "dominant" special teams player.
But with that increase on special teams has come an increase on offense, too — Dulin, through four games, has played 19 percent of the Colts' offensive snaps. The Colts continue to find ways to get him on the field, and on Sunday against the Dolphins, his 17-yard reception was a key play on a third quarter touchdown drive.
"He's a player you can count on," Reich said. "From Day 1 with Ashton, I've always felt like he was going to develop into a good wide receiver in this league. He's doing that. He's big, he's strong, he's fast, he's smart.
"Then, what I probably like most about him is just – and I know this is most of the guys, but Ashton came from a smaller school, but this game is not too big for him. There's no level of this game that is too big for Ashton. He can compete with anybody."
Reich values Dulin's versatility to play any receiver position — outside or in the slot — as well as his toughness in a receiver room full of tough guys like Michael Pittman Jr. and Zach Pascal.
"When you talk about tough, physical wide receivers, you'd be hard pressed to find a group of three receivers like that who are more physical and who aren't afraid to mix it up," Reich said. "Love the trajectory that Ashton is on. He's a very good football player, a very good teammate. We're fortunate to have him."
Pascal — an undrafted receiver who made his way on special teams — in particular is a good example and resource for Dulin.
"I always look to Zach as far as being that guy that can shed some light or pass down some little nuggets of knowledge as far as developing as a wide receiver but still taking on that role as a special teams player," Dulin said. "I embrace that role, I definitely look every day to get better as a receiver and also get better as a special teams player. But having a guy like Zach there who's always there to help or have that veteran mindset of he's seen a bunch of different looks as far as technique. He's definitely a guy I look to as far as developing myself as a receiver for sure."
The Colts believe the playmaking knack Dulin's shown on special teams over the last few years — and has been ratcheted up to another level in 2021 — can and will translate on offense. Reich singled out Dulin on Monday to praise his game against the Dolphins, and if Dulin continues on his trajectory, it won't be the last time he gets recognized by his coaches and teammates this season.
"Of course it feels good but the work's not done," Dulin said. "We all know that. We just gotta keep continuing to build. Just to know that coach sees the hard work that's been going into it is great, I love to hear that, and I just want to continue to keep building and continue to keep going and continue to keep stacking the days and continue to make this a great season."