INDIANAPOLIS – For the five members of the Colts 2011 draft class it has been a bit of a whirlwind rookie season.
They were thrown into the fray of an NFL training camp without the typical off-season availabilities of rookie camps, mini-camp and organized team activities. The top pick, offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo, has played through injuries in appearing in 11 contests. The second- and third-round choices, offensive tackle Ben Ijalana and defensive tackle Drake Nevis, had their seasons ended with injuries.
Fourth-round pick Delone Carter has found his niche in a short-yardage role offensively, and his periodic bursts beyond the line have helped the team average 4.3 yards per rush in 2011.
In the past few weeks, sixth-round pick Chris Rucker has emerged in the secondary. After playing mostly special teams early in the season, Rucker surfaced regularly in the secondary four weeks ago when fellow cornerbacks Terrence Johnson and Jerraud Powers were placed on injured reserve after the New England game.
Injuries to the pair created opportunity for Rucker, and he has been in the opening lineup since then. He has started the last three games at right cornerback. Rucker did not anticipate action on center stage so quickly.
"I thought it was going to be not a learning season, but a season where I would get to see a lot of things and be used sparingly, like an emergency," Rucker said. "Emergencies came up, and now it's my chance to step up and be able to try to make some plays and try to help the team."
Rookies and younger players endure a learning curve when they reach the NFL. The most critical thing is listening to the voices of experience. In a position like the secondary that needs cohesion to thrive, being on the same page with teammates is essential. Listening to their guidance is one thing, and taking to heart the instruction of coaches is critical.
"It was unexpected," said Rucker of his rookie indoctrination to the playing field. "Early in the season, coaches would tell us, 'Practice every week like you're going to play.' I kept doing that every week, whether I was going to play or not. By doing that it really helped me so that when I did go in, I wasn't a fish out of water out there. I think that really helped me."
In the New England game, Rucker recorded five tackles and a pass defensed. He followed that up with five stops the next week against Baltimore, getting heavy doses against two of the most prolific AFC offenses. He saw the potent aerial show directed by Tom Brady and the relentless attacking style of Ray Rice.
The highlight of the year for Rucker came in the Colts win over Tennessee one week after facing the Ravens. The Michigan State product had 11 tackles and recovered a fumble.
Even though Powers is not on the field with Rucker, he and Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea have been in the ear of the rookie in meetings. They are imparting advice to help him succeed in a challenging environment.
"From them, I learned not only to try to be consistent, but to work hard," Rucker said. "Come to work every day and if you don't know something, ask about it. They showed me in this league if you want to stay around, you have to keep getting better. You can't just be complacent. You have to keep getting better. There is always something to learn, and there is something you can always get better at no matter how long you've been around here."
Perhaps the greatest challenge Rucker and the secondary has had to face in 2011 is the infusion of a handful of players making their NFL debuts. Along with Johnson and Powers, safety Melvin Bullitt also was placed on injured reserve earlier in the season, thus forcing inexperienced players into the lineup. Players like Rucker and Johnson who have made career-opening appearances in the Indianapolis secondary this year include Joe Lefeged, Kevin Thomas and David Caldwell.
"We've had a number of young guys that have played for us," said Head Coach Jim Caldwell. "(Chris) Rucker is out there now playing for us a little bit and Kevin Thomas has played quite a bit. Jerraud Powers was kind of a steady force there at corner for a while until he went out. We've had a number of guys in and out back there. I think in the long run we'll benefit greatly from it, because every week they seem to get just a little bit better."
Rucker is a willing student. He is soaking up veteran advice, and he is communicating with his youthful support group.
"We talk about it with us being a young secondary," Rucker said. "Being the young guys, we talk about what we can do better, what we need to do better. We kind of help each other out. If we see something a guy can do better, we help him out with a little bit (of advice). We do take what each other says to heart and try to do better at it."
Early in the preseason, Rucker said the greatest adjustment to the pro game was getting used to the speed, and now he has learned the importance for being the same player week-to-week.
"I'd probably say the biggest thing I've learned is the importance of consistency," Rucker said. "You always want to be consistent. You don't want to be a guy who plays good one game and bad another or good one play and bad on another. You want to play at a high level every game and be able to compete at the highest level possible."
Rucker has made his starts late in his rookie season, and he has played in all but one game this year. One of the benefits that will be tangible going forward has been the exposure to the AFC South. Down the road, Rucker expects to be playing in the division for a long time. He has a chance to help the team even its divisional record at 3-3 this Sunday at Jacksonville. Playing well on New Year's Day can be a stepping stone into season two of his career.
"They are divisional games and you can see basically what you're going to see for the whole time you're here," Rucker said of this week and his last two starts. "I feel I can get better recognizing stuff. There are a lot of things where you can get better. Every game you have a chance to get better, see something you can use next year."