INDIANAPOLIS — When you have talented young players, you think you know how they'll respond when presented with a larger role, but you just can't say with any certainty until the lights come on and the reps start counting.
Take Jonathan Taylor, for example, who had one of the greatest careers by a running back in NCAA history at Wisconsin, and looked every bit the part when the Indianapolis Colts selected him in the second round of this year's NFL Draft — and even had a solid NFL debut last Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But when veteran starter Marlon Mack went down with a season-ending Achilles injury last week, how would Taylor respond to his first-career start?
Then there's Mo Alie-Cox. This guy didn't even play football in college — he played basketball at VCU — and has essentially been the Colts' third tight end the last couple seasons, doing all the dirty work and playing a minimal role in the passing game.
But when it was apparent two-time Pro Bowler Jack Doyle wasn't going to be able to play in Sunday's Week 2 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings with knee and ankle injuries, how would Alie-Cox respond for the first time as the No. 1 option at the tight end position?
In both cases, the Colts learned on Sunday, their instincts were right on — these young guns can play some ball.
Both Taylor, as a rusher, and Alie-Cox, as a receiver, crossed the 100-yard mark in their respective categories in Sunday's 28-11 victory, marking the first time the team has had both a 100-yard rusher and receiver in the same game in almost a decade.
"Guys have had to step up," Colts quarterback Philip Rivers said after Sunday's win. "We had all kind of moving parts. … Guys are playing different spots and doing a nice job."
The Colts (1-1) moved up three spots in April's NFL Draft to select Taylor and provide the offense with a "1-1 punch" at the running back position; but only one player can be the starter, and head coach Frank Reich elected to enter the season with the veteran Mack, who last year earned his first-career 1,000 rushing season, as the primary back.
But Mack went down with a season-ending Achilles injury midway through the second quarter of last Sunday's 27-20 road loss to the Jaguars to open up the season. Taylor would end up having a quality NFL debut in that game, with 89 total yards from scrimmage, including six receptions for 67 yards, but with Mack out, Taylor was now the guy at running back for the Colts moving forward.
So Reich devised a gameplan Sunday that made sure to establish Taylor and allow him to get into a rhythm. At some points, the sheer amount of carries from drive to drive made it seem as if Taylor was still playing at Wisconsin, as he finished with 26 carries for 101 yards and his first-career touchdown run.
Taylor finished with 18 carries in the first half, which were the most over the first two quarter of any NFL game since the Tennessee Titans' Derrick Henry had 21 first-half carries Dec. 16, 2018; that mark was also the fourth-most carries by a Colts running back in in team history in the first half.
Taylor also became just the 11th NFL running back since 2000 to rush for 100 yards in a game within the first two weeks of their rookie season, according to Pro Football Reference.
"You kind of understand the tone of the game," Taylor said when asked why it's important to get the ball early and often. "You understand what you have to do. You get a feel for the game, and you understand, 'OK, we have to set the line of scrimmage up front. We have to make sure we establish the run.' You really just get in that mindset of what kind of game it's going to be, so it prepares you for the rest of the three quarters."
Alie-Cox, meanwhile, was quickly able to turn a forgettable early moment into the biggest performance of his career on Sunday.
Trailing 3-0, the Colts were embarking on a methodical first offensive drive. On the 16th play, Indy faced 2nd and 8 from the Minnesota 11-yard line, and Rivers, lined up in the shotgun, fired a quick pass over the middle to Alie-Cox, but he wasn't able to hang on. The ball was batted into the air and picked off by Vikings linebacker Eric Wilson.
But Rivers didn't stop feeding his big tight end the rest of the afternoon. Alie-Cox finished with career single-game highs in receptions (five) and receiving yards (111), as he became the 12th tight end in franchise history to have a 100-yard receiving game, and the first since Eric Ebron had nine receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns against the New England Patriots on Oct. 4, 2018.
Alie-Cox said he's been following Doyle's lead since he was signed by the Colts as an undrafted free agent with virtually zero football experience back in 2017, and that certainly paid off for him on Sunday.
"I just try to follow Jack's lead every day," Alie-Cox said. "Up to this point, he's helped me a lot to be ready for a situation like this. He went down, and it was just next man up. Over the years, I've just gotten accustomed to following his lead, and now I got the opportunity today, and I just tried to make the most of it."
Reich believes Alie-Cox should take a little bit more credit.
"He works so hard," Reich said. "It's so important to him. He's physically and mentally tough, and he's just continued to get better. It was obvious this week with Jack down, with that being a big blow, Philip (Rivers) let us know right away – he let me and Nick (Sirianni) know right away how much confidence he has in Mo and not holding anything back.
"Philip likes throwing to those big targets," Reich continued. "He is used to doing it to receivers, but you could see how quickly he got used to Mo – just throwing to that big target. What else can you say? Mo is a big man and a great competitor. Hats off to him."
While Taylor will continue to lead the way at running back, Alie-Cox's role could fluctuate over the next couple weeks if and when Doyle is able to work his way back into the lineup. The team also has another talented veteran tight end, Trey Burton, on injured reserve with a calf injury, and he could return as soon as Week 4 against the Chicago Bears.
For his part, however, Alie-Cox just wants to stay consistent against the New York Jets (0-2), who come to Lucas Oil Stadium for their Week 3 matchup next Sunday.
"It's just one game, but I'm always confident," Alie-Cox said. "I'm always confident in myself, so once I heard the news that I was starting, it didn't really change my demeanor in any way. I just had to go at it as work as usual. It was great to go out there and have a great day, but at the end of the day, it's just one game. We know that we have higher goals that we want to achieve."