WESTFIELD, Ind. — “An athletic speed player that likes to hit.”
If there’s a more desirable player description out there for Matt Eberflus and his defensive system, it’s yet to surface.
And that’s exactly the first impression E.J. Speed has made on Eberflus, the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive coordinator, after his first seven training camp practices at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, Ind.
Speed might be coming from a Division II school in Tarleton State, but game film is game film, and Eberflus said the rookie linebacker has so far displayed the same abilities that made him a star at the college level with the Texans.
“Coming from a small school, our scouting department did a great job of looking at their measurables and those things were certainly high with him,” Eberflus said. “He’s jumping off the tape right now in terms of just hitting, speed and those things.”
The Colts didn’t know a whole lot about Speed during a majority of the draft process, but his numbers at a Texas A&M-Commerce pro day in March piqued the interest of general manager Chris Ballard’s scouting staff, which brought him in for a pre-draft visit.
When the Colts dug into Speed’s background they found a pure athlete that originally entered the college ranks as a quarterback, moved to wide receiver and then settled in at linebacker. He led Division II football in forced fumbles as a sophomore (five), and by the time he had wrapped up his career at Tarleton State, Speed had compiled 231 total tackles (36 for a loss) with 11.5 sacks, 10 pass breakups, three interceptions, eight forced fumbles four fumble recoveries and three blocked kicks.
Just about one month after that pro day workout and subsequent visit to Indy, the Colts selected Speed in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He became the highest-drafted player in Tarleton State history, and the highest-selected Lone Star Conference athlete since Abilene Christian wide receiver Clyde Gates back in 2011.
The expectation coming in for the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Speed was that he’d start out learning behind All-Pro Darius Leonard at the WILL, but eventually have the ability to effectively play all three linebacker spots.
But Speed in recent days has already been seen mixing in with the first-team defense at SAM linebacker — this despite the fact the team already has six returning linebackers from last year’s team, as well as another draft pick at linebacker in Bobby Okereke, on their roster.
And Speed isn’t just getting reps — he’s making the most of them. He’s made several key plays, most notably in the run game and in goal-to-go situations.
“This is what I dreamed of, so it’s a lot of fun,” Speed said of his first training camp so far. “I mean, it’s a confidence booster (to get first-team reps), but at the same time, it’s all work.”
What’s helped in the process: Speed said it didn’t take long after arriving in Indy to learn to follow the likes of Leonard and Anthony Walker, the team’s starting MIKE linebacker — “I’m just sitting back and just watching — just keeping your mouth closed and watching — goes a long way those those two,” he added.
But the 24-year-old Fort Worth, Texas, native is also enjoying the education he’s receiving from the likes of Eberflus, who brings a passionate, no-nonsense approach to the Colts’ defense.
“Great teacher, great motivator,” Speed said of Eberflus. “He pushes you to the limit. I mean, I can’t say enough. I’m glad I am here with Coach Eberflus. This is a great way to start my NFL career, because with him I just feel that he never leaves anything unnoticed. He’s going to tell you when you’re right, he’s going to tell you when you’re wrong, and it feels like I really got someone who cares about what I do on the field and in my career.”
For his part, Eberflus says that while Speed has certainly been impressive early on, he’s still a rookie, so he “still has a long way to go in terms of what to do and all those things and how to do it.” But the Colts utilize a defensive system that should also allow Speed to quickly get up to, well, speed, as long as he keeps bringing it every day in practice.
“I think the learning curve for them and then the product on the field is shorter and that’s a benefit that we have here,” Eberflus said. “We have a system that was coveted by the Colts that we play that has been played here before and they understand what it takes and what it means to be for each player to play each position.
“What we saw in college (with Speed) was an athletic speed player that likes to hit,” Eberflus continued, “and that’s exactly what we are getting.”