INDIANAPOLIS – Prior to last season, Robert Mathis called Josh Chapman 'TNT' for "thug in the trenches."
In Chapman's profession it is a dynamic compliment, and those around Chapman see 2014 being a huge opportunity for the 340-pound nose tackle.
"I see a lot of growth. I think I see the old 'Bama (player) back, the Nick Saban guy," said Ricky Jean Francois, who manned the nose role in San Francisco before joining the Colts. "He's stronger than last year. I don't know how much stronger he can get. You can see he's stepped up and ready to take that role for us."
Chapman was that presence in college and after mending from a knee injury suffered in a national title season, he is embarking on a second playing year as a Colt.
"We always say, 'In the 3-4 defense if you don't have a middle man, you ain't got a defense.' That's our guy," said Francois. "To have Josh, a dude who knows how to play that position and is that stout who you can't move – a brick wall – it's huge."
Chapman is a load of interior grit that played in 15 games last year counting the playoffs. He had five games with multiple tackles and flashed his value with a fourth-down, goal-line tackle in Cincinnati that negated a touchdown until a replay reversal intervened.
It was a moment of disruption Indianapolis seeks to make a pattern as it approaches a third year in Chuck Pagano's 3-4 scheme.
"He's a big, big guy who knows how to play the nose position, how to play with leverage, play squarely, use his hands and eats up blocks," said Pagano. "He's a smart player who gets it. He's steady and doesn't say a whole lot. He's great to have."
Pagano and Ryan Grigson have been seeking size on the line since arriving in 2012. They inherited a group where two-of-11 linemen topped 300 pounds, a unit that averaged 276 pounds per man.
The club exited last season with an average weight of 322 pounds per player, meaning Indianapolis is inching toward the AFC North look Pagano seeks.
Another great day of organized team activities!
"We finally have the body types, the guys that know how to play square, the guys who have been in this scheme before," said Grigson.
Francois was an import, along with others like Cory Redding, Aubrayo Franklin and Brandon McKinney.
Francois and Redding remain and along with a developing Chapman, Art Jones was brought from Baltimore to help the Colts achieve a look long held by the Ravens.
"Josh is a strong country boy. He reminds me a lot of Kelly Gregg of Baltimore," said Jones. "He's a shorter nose tackle (6-0) who really understands leverage, strong, knows how to take on double teams – really not get knocked off the ball.
"I talk to him all the time, 'This is going to be a special year here for many years to come.' This defensive line really can be something special. He can be as good as he wants."
The Colts defense is back on the practice field working to improve on a great 2013 season.
Chapman loves the hand-to-hand combat in the trenches and has become savvy to this level.
"There were different steps to learn, different tricks," said Chapman. "Last year, I learned a lot about backfield sets from the older guys.
"I really never thought about what I could get out of certain formations. I was one of those guys who lined up and played. With getting some mental reps from the older guys, I can kind of cheat. You learn well from them."
Chapman now finds the defense more "second nature" to him. He wants to help tighten up a rush defense that yielded a 4.5 seasonal average (4.9 in the playoffs).
Eight regular-season opponents attempted 30 or more rushes in a game, while the Colts surrendered 140-plus yards eight times.
The Colts yielded 101 rushing first downs last year, extending an eight-year run with opponents topping the century mark. Only two playoff teams – New England, Green Bay – allowed more rushing first downs.
"The defense is a great defense," said Chapman. "The 3-4 defense is built on stopping the run, and we will stop the run. You stay in your gap. If we do that, we can be one of the top defenses in the league."
The stout line does not take nimbleness out of the equation. The intent also is for the unit to reach the quarterback more often.
"It's a passing league, so we have to get pressure to help out," said Chapman. "I can get a couple of crumbs every now and then."
Said Francois, "Everybody can get to the quarterback up front. Just because you have weight, you have to make sure you have the twinkle toes and skills. (We) have the skills, ability and knowledge. All of us can get to the quarterback."