INDIANAPOLIS – Linebacker Gary Brackett has seen a great deal in his eight previous seasons with the Colts.
He came in as an undrafted rookie in 2003 and played primarily on special teams behind starters Rob Morris, Marcus Washington and David Thornton.
A second year in any young pro's career is one where a growth spurt typically is realized. Brackett saw more time his second year defensively, but he cracked the starting line-up just once among his 15 appearances.
Brackett's 2003 rookie season was the second year for Thornton, a fourth-round 2002 choice who appeared in 15 games as a rookie before starting 16 games in 2003. Brackett's 2004 second season also was the second season for Cato June, a sixth-round 2003 choice who played in 11 games as a first-timer before opening 16 games in his second year.
Brackett's third season, 2005, saw him flanked by Thornton and June on the starting linebacking unit. Brackett and Thornton opened 16 games, while June started 13. The trio excelled as the club went 14-2 in winning a third consecutive AFC South title.
The corps lost Thornton prior to the 2006 season, but Brackett and June continued. The 2007 season saw Brackett surrounded most often by Rocky Boiman and Freddy Keiaho. Clint Session joined Brackett and Keiaho as prominent starters in 2008, and Philip Wheeler and Tyjuan Hagler split the strongside linebacking starts in 2009, alongside Brackett and Session.
The chronology of Indianapolis linebackers continued last season. Session opened five of the first seven games before missing the rest of the season. Brackett himself was out four outings, while Wheeler opened six of 16 appearances.
Enter Kavell Conner and Pat Angerer. Angerer was the club's second choice in the 2010 draft, the 63rd selection overall. Conner joined him later in the draft, the 240th choice overall.
The pair received an immediate NFL baptism as the club endured a difficult season with injuries. Conner started nine of 12 appearances at weakside linebacker, including starts in two of his first three career games. Angerer started the final 11 games, four in the middle when Brackett was on the shelf and the rest at strongside linebacker.
Angerer had 75 tackles, 50 solo, one sack and one forced fumble, including three games with 11 or more stops. Conner produced 47 takedowns, one forced fumble and one fumble recovered. He had three games with eight or more tackles.
They join Brackett as starters for the club in 2011. Just as Brackett saw growth and opportunity early in his career, he is seeing the growth in Angerer and Conner that he saw with previous teammates, too. He sees things are becoming more natural for them.
"You see that big jump, usually in that second-year player," said Brackett. "You see those guys really get it. You see the light goes on. They're not out there thinking. They can react and show what type of play-makers they are. Both those guys (Angerer and Conner) have tremendous upside."
Brackett knows the young players gained a very heavy dose of experience as rookies, perhaps more than any other rookie linebackers the club had nurtured over the past seven to eight years.
With that experience, a self-imposed urgency level could increase since athletes tend to critique themselves as performers. Brackett believes younger players put more on themselves as a career moves into year two.
"I think so. The urgency level increases," said Brackett. "No longer do you have to jog your memory. We review things enough that you should get it. That light bulb should be going on when that guy goes in motion or a (defensive) check is made. You shouldn't be jogging your memory and figuring out what it is. You should immediately know when something happens, what goes next. I think there just comes that point with experience. I think both those guys, they're getting it."
Angerer admits to being more comfortable in his role and hopes his rookie experience will help him play faster. With starts at both the strong and middle positions this season, his competitiveness has been on display, as has been his analytical critique.
"It is nice to be a little bit more comfortable, but it means I have a lot less patience with myself," he said. "I expect myself to play like a veteran. I have high expectations…As an athlete and a competitor, you don't think about the positive things. You always think of the things you can fix. Right now it's in the back of my head the stuff I need to fix.
"It has slowed down for me this year. You've had that experience and you want to play like a vet. Sometimes you have to remember you've only been here for a year, but still I definitely have less patience for my mistakes. When I make them, it bugs me a little bit more. Now when I watch tape, I know what I need to do better. I'm still making mistakes, but I'm improving."
Angerer sees nothing wrong and everything right with being a tough self-critic.
"In order to get better you have to take a long look at yourself in a mirror and know what you're good at and what you have to improve," he said.
Conner learned a great deal from his rookie experience, too. He finds the amount of play he got last year makes him expect more of himself this year.
"It definitely made me a lot more comfortable. I find things slowing down," said Conner. "I'm not exactly where I want to be right now, but I am working toward it. That first year you gain the experience and this year you expect more because you've been there before. It's not like this is the first time you are doing things, so you expect more. You want to meet the expectations of the defense."
Like Angerer, Conner keeps a critical eye peeled toward his play.
"Some guys already have their inner drive. Some guys are just more critical of themselves because they are perfectionists. I think it all depends on one's personality," he said. "I'm very critical of myself because I want to play great. I want to get better and if I'm not, I'm not helping myself. I like the fact I'm more comfortable, but you never can be content. You always can get better and if you're critical of yourself, you can improve something every day."
When asked to compare the second-year players with past teammates, Brackett refrained because people are different. While he remembers past teammates fondly, he is excited about his current side-mates.
"It's all different. Everyone has different personalities, different characteristics, different abilities," said Brackett. "When I came in I was so young to the game, so there was a lot of stuff I didn't know. We were all learning on the job, the three of us, me, David (Thornton) and Cato (June). I was a lot closer to those guys because of age and we came in the league together. I'm encouraged by this group, their ability to make plays, to diagnose what's going on in the offense. I'm excited."