INDIANAPOLIS – Delone Carter made some deep footprints as a running back at Syracuse.
Carter opened 23 of 42 career games and rushed for 3,104 yards and 24 touchdowns during his collegiate career. He topped 100 rushing yards 11 times and ranked third in school history in rushing yards. Carter also tied for seventh in rushing touchdowns and 100 rushing games.
Given the rich history of running backs at Syracuse, those are impressive rankings on the school charts. Those exploits enriched his chances of being draft early, and that is what happened when the Colts made him the 119th selection in this year's draft.
Carter and other NFL rookies were not able to benefit from spring workouts with teams, so his literal crash course began in training camp at Anderson University.
Carter thrived in the camp crucible and emerged in the club's plans for heavy usage when league games began. Now six games in, he has rushed for 170 yards on 55 attempts, and he scored his first touchdown two weeks ago.
He is paying dividends for Indianapolis.
Carter made his first career start last Sunday at Cincinnati. He opened for Joseph Addai, who suffered a hamstring injury early in the game the previous week against Kansas City. Carter scored his first career touchdown against the Chiefs, a three-yard burst in heavy traffic, and he rushed for 45 yards on 14 attempts against the Bengals.
More importantly, the club has turned four red zone possessions into four touchdowns over the past two games. Against Cincinnati, Indianapolis converted four third-and-one situations.
While Carter was not the 'poster person' for the club's short-yardage rushing, it is an area in which he has contributed. Those around Carter have noticed his work.
"He's turned out to be a pretty darned good back," said Colts Vice Chairman Bill Polian. "Delone is more of a natural downhill runner as opposed to a bounce runner. I have to say Delone's developed great running instinct as well. He didn't show that at Syracuse to the degree that he's doing it now. He's got lots of elusiveness and lots of run instinct in traffic that I think he's developed since coming into the league."
Second-year left tackle Jeff Linkenbach knows about contributions right off the bat in an NFL career. Linkenbach opened four of 16 outings last year and has started all six games this year. He is pleased with Carter's ability.
"He's a hard-nosed runner, that's for sure," said Linkenbach. "Any time you have a big back like that who is putting his head down and piling through, as an offensive lineman you like to see that."
A first professional starting assignment is a big moment in any player's career. Despite his personal success and the club's production in the red zone and short yardage at Cincinnati, Carter proved to be very stern in offering himself a performance grade.
"That's a hard question," said Carter, pondering the subject carefully. "I thought it was okay. I always feel I can do better. I thought with the opportunities I got, I did well. I wouldn't say it was an 'A' or a 'B.' I thought it was average. If I get a four-yard run, I want it to be a 10-yard run. If I get a three-yard run, I want it to be an eight-yard run. That's just how I run. I feel like I have to stay hungry. That's how you play this game."
Carter evidently stayed hungry at Syracuse. He started 12 of 13 games his last year, rushing for 1,233 yards and nine touchdowns. He ran for 198 yards in the Pinstripe Bowl against Kansas State to earn MVP honors. Carter finished his career with a streak of 242 attempts without a fumble. He says he always worked hard at taking meticulous care of the football.
"Ever since I was little, ball security was very important to me. I work on that a lot," said Carter. "(As a kid) I used to sleep with the ball. Now, there's 'strip' drills. I do 'one-arm' drills. There are a lot of things I work on."
An emphasis point for the team has been the ability to pick up the type of critical yards it has done in the last two games. Carter has kept his nose in that game, too.
"Definitely (it has been emphasized)," said Carter. "We go into the red zone expecting to score. We focus on that during the week, and we're getting it done. "It's (short-yardage situations) the same as the red zone. We go to work on that during the week. We just try to execute on Sundays. I feel like that (the short-yardage offense) was one of the main reasons they brought me in here, and I like to excel in it. We work on third-and-one and red zone throughout the week. Those are things we want to improve on each week. Slowly but surely, we are doing that. You just have to go out there and do it. It's a tough down. You go out there, you get that one yard and you continue that drive. It's nothing fancy. It's nothing pretty. You have to go out there and get it."
Carter is quick to point to the work of his line. Already this season the club has had to employ multiple starting combinations. Two of his draft class members, Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana, have been injured. Castonzo will return this year, but Ijalana is on injured reserve and will not play until next year. Carter appreciates how the line has worked for him.
"I think they're performing extremely well," said Carter. "They're dealing with a lot of adversity, a lot of different injuries. The next guy who steps in has done a tremendous job and we continue to progress."
Polian believes Carter can help the club's rushing attack on many levels.
"With Delone Carter, he's a guy if you give him just a little crack he's liable to run through the second-level defender," said Polian. "In fact, he will very often. That's a skill we've been sorely lacking and one that we saw in Delone and we said, 'This is the kind of guy who can help our football team in that one specific area.' "
Carter may or may not hear the praise. He keeps a level head to go with his hard-nosed approach. Told that the attack is performing well and is following plans, he knows the process is only at mid-stream.
"I wouldn't know about past seasons but from what I hear from the coaches, we are off to a good start," said Carter. "We want to build on it."