**Caldwell on Colts' Return Game: 'I'm Not Going to Try to Hide from the Facts'
INDIANAPOLIS – To Jim Caldwell, there's little point in ignoring an issue.
And without question, Caldwell – entering his second season as the Colts' head coach – said on some level, the Colts' return game has been an issue recently.
The Colts, who this past weekend selected one kickoff returner in the NFL Draft and signed at least one collegiate free agent capable of filling the role, were not as strong returning kicks and punts this past season as would have been ideal, Caldwell said Friday.
But Caldwell said this much is true, too.
The Colts may not necessarily get multiple touchdowns from the return game next season.
But they do need to improve.
"All we want to do is get better than where we were," Caldwell said late Friday afternoon, the first day of the Colts' three-day rookie mini-camp, scheduled to run through Sunday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
"We're not looking for a guy who's going to run back eight kick returns, because it's not going to happen. We're looking to improve where we are."
The Colts, a post-season team the last eight seasons, last season won a sixth AFC South title in seven years, and the return game wasn't without highlight moments.
Chad Simpson, the Colts' kickoff returner much of last season, returned a kickoff 93 yards for a critical touchdown in a 35-31 victory at Jacksonville in December. For the season, Simpson averaged 23.6 yards on 38 returns and punt returner T. J. Rushing averaged 5.7 yards on 22 returns.
Rushing became a free agent following the season and was not re-signed, and the Colts released Simpson shortly before the draft.
In that draft, the Colts addressed the returner position.
They did so shortly thereafter, too.
First, the Colts used a seventh-round selection – the No. 246 selection overall – on Indiana University cornerback Ray Fisher, who returned 17 kickoffs for a 37.4-yard average as a senior and had a 9.8-yard average on punt returns.
"I love playing special teams," Fisher said. "When I played at Indiana, I was a starter and I still loved playing all of the special teams. I think I have a chance to be the kick returner, but I have to come in and still do it off the field and on the field. I still have a ways to go."
The Colts on Friday announced the signing of 16 collegiate free agents, a group that included Brandon James, who Colts President Bill Polian said Friday "is principally a kick returner."
James, who started seven of 50 games at the University of Florida, set four Southeastern Conference and 11 Florida records returning kickoffs and punts. He averaged 24.3 yards and scored one touchdown on 112 kickoff returns, and also returned 117 punts for an 11.7-yard average and four touchdowns.
"It was just a God-given talent," James said. "I was blessed with the confidence to get back there and be comfortable catching the ball. It's just a knack for returning.
"I feel like I can help them out a lot in the return phase."
Caldwell on Friday called the Colts' kick return game "lacking."
"There's no question about that," Caldwell said.
But Caldwell also said realistically the Colts – or any team in the NFL for that matter – will have trouble making kick or punt returns a dominant part of a team's approach.
"You know me, I'm not going to try to hide from the facts," Caldwell said. "It hasn't been quite as explosive as we'd like, but the league, because of the speed that you face, does not allow anyone to just blow the top off, in terms of their ability to return the ball up and down the field. You've had guys that have done it in spurts, here and there.
"We're looking to be more consistent."
Caldwell also said because of the effectiveness of an offense that perennially ranks among the NFL leaders in yardage and points, ball security remains the top priority in the return game.
"If we catch the ball and make certain that it doesn't hit the ground, if we don't gain an inch, in terms of our punt return, we're still not in bad shape," he said. "We do have some guys that can put that ball in the end zone. In kickoff return, we just need to get the ball consistently out past the 20 (yard line).
"That's what we'd like to do. We're just pushing to get a little above the norm."
Caldwell also said while returners obviously must hit holes decisively, the task of creating those holes is just one non-returner area that must improve, too.
"I think all phases, really," Caldwell said. "We have to block better. We have to do a better job with our techniques. Guys have to have vision and find the hole and get in it quickly because it doesn't take long for them to close up.
"I don't think you can just look at one thing and say, 'This is the problem.' There are a few things we need to work on."
Also on Friday, Caldwell addressed:
• Competition on the offensive line. "I think anytime you get some depth that it helps. I think competition is healthy, and I do think that some of the guys are going to push some of the guys lined up in front of them and that overall it's going to be a real good, healthy competition."
• The Colts' approach to collegiate free agency. "There are a lot of teams contacting these same guys, who are very talented guys, and they are trying to get them in to make their teams. One of the things that we can sell is the fact that we do have a lot of guys that were in the same position, that came in, and are now playing for us. (Middle linebacker) Gary Brackett, as we mentioned, is one of those guys. (Center) Jeff Saturday was a free agent. (Safety) Melvin Bullitt (and cornerback) Jacob Lacey just last year, were able to (make the team as undrafted free agents). I think it certainly bodes well for us in proving our point."
• On the increased awareness of rookies over the NFL's stance on off-field misconduct: "I would think so. The climate is such that there is not a whole lot of tolerance for misdeeds out in our communities. We've had some fairly significant cases that have received a lot of attention, here lately. All of our guys are aware of that."