Patience has been the name of the game so far for Jelani Woods as he navigates the life of being a rookie in the National Football League.
Selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the third round of this year's NFL Draft, hopes have been high for the former Virginia standout, who brings a unique and potentially dangerous blend of size (6 foot 7, 253 pounds) and speed (4.61-second 40-yard dash) to the tight end position.
And while Woods certainly didn't struggle in his first NFL offseason heading into training camp, he wasn't making as many plays, or performing as consistently, as he would've liked. Meanwhile, others at the tight end position — most notable fellow rookie Drew Ogletree — seemed to be taking considerable steps forward as camp moved along.
But when Ogletree went down with an unfortunate knee injury suffered during a joint training camp practice with the Detroit Lions, Woods didn't have any other choice. He had to step it up.
And on Sunday, with the Colts in desperate need of their first win of the season in their home opener against the formidable Kansas City Chiefs, Woods' hard work, and his patience, paid off.
Woods not only logged his first two NFL receptions, but both were for touchdowns, including the game-winning score with 29 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to give Indianapolis (1-1-1) a 20-17 victory over Kansas City (2-1).
"It's just being able to take advantage of the moment — that's the biggest thing for me," Woods told reporters after the game. "Whenever my number's called, being able to contribute and do what I can to win the game, or even … just moving us down the field. I just try to do my best to be contributing."
Woods' first NFL catch, and touchdown, came early in the ballgame. After recovering a muffed Chiefs punt inside the Kansas City 4-yard line, quarterback Matt Ryan delivered a strike to Woods, who had snuck into an open zone of the defense, giving Indy an early 7-0 lead.
Woods was targeted one other time in the third quarter, but he was unable to connect with Ryan down the right side of the field on a 2nd-and-8 play from the Indy 39-yard line. But he stayed dialed in the rest of the way, earning an early signature career play in the process.
The Colts, trailing 17-13, embarked on their final offensive drive of the game starting at the 8:38 mark of the fourth quarter. Fifteen plays later, they had advanced to the Kansas City 12-yard line, but just 29 seconds remained in the ballgame.
On 2nd and 10, Ryan lined up in the shotgun with three receivers, including Woods, to his left. The rookie and the veteran quarterback knew instantly, even before the snap, they had a matchup they liked, with Woods hoping to take advantage of a serious size, and leverage, advantage against Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill, who at 6-feet is seven inches shorter than him.
"I saw one-high (coverage), and knew we were running a crosser-type route, and I knew the man was playing outside leverage," Woods said. "So I kind of had an idea it was probably coming to me, so it was going through my head, 'Just make a play.'"
The matchup, the route, the throw and the catch were all perfect. Ryan put it only where his big tight end could get it right at the goal line, and he secured it to the ground from there, sending the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd into a frenzy.
A few plays later, safety Rodney McLeod Jr. picked off a Patrick Mahomes pass that was tipped in the air by cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and the Colts were able to celebrate their first win of the season after a challenging first couple games on the road against the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars.
"That was fun. That's the player we expect Jelani to be — you know, make the big play," Colts head coach Frank Reich said. "He's a big man, and he's fast. And you could just see his growth and maturity in the offseason, in training camp, especially when Drew (Ogletree) got hurt and a little bit more pressure put on him to come through. He's just continued to get better every week. Really happy for Jelani."