2020 Camp Chatter: Rodrigo Blankenship, Nyheim Hines, Malik Hooker & Chase McLaughlin

What’s the latest in #ColtsCamp from the players’ perspective? Hear from kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, running back Nyheim Hines, safety Malik Hooker and kicker Chase McLaughlin in today’s edition of “Camp Chatter.”

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INDIANAPOLIS — What's the latest in #ColtsCamp from the players' perspective? Hear from kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, running back Nyheim Hines, safety Malik Hooker and kicker Chase McLaughlin in today's edition of "Camp Chatter."

Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship

» Blankenship had his pick of several teams after going undrafted, but had a good feeling about the Colts: Blankenship had a standout career at Georgia, where he exited as the school's all-time leader in field goal percentage (82.5) and hit all 200 of his extra-point attempts. When all was said and done, he had finished second in SEC history in total points (440), and was named an All-American and the Lou Groza Award winner as college football's top placekicker last year.

The fact that he didn't get selected in this year's NFL Draft might've actually been beneficial for Blankenship; he had a number of teams to choose from that wanted to sign him as a college free agent. So the fact he chose the Colts, where he knew he'd enter into a battle for the kicking job with Chase McLaughlin, is pretty telling.

"Yeah, I think that the relationship just kind of developed over that period of time after the Senior Bowl and after the Combine leading up to the draft," Blankenship said. "I just had lot of conversations with Coach Bubba (Ventrone) and Coach Franky (Ross), just getting to know them and getting a good feel of the organization and what I would be stepping into. Ultimately, I just felt like this was the best place for me when the draft was over."

The Colts' rich history of special teams success, most recently with the likes of guys like Adam Vinatieri and Pat McAfee, among others, also factored into his decision.

"You obviously have to walk in and come right into kind of the heat of battle, walk into a competition, but that's how it was going to be anywhere that I decided to go," Blankenship said. "I just felt like this was an incredible organization with a lot of history and a lot of tradition and precedent established. After going through that process I just felt really comfortable with Coach Bubba and Coach Franky and just felt like it was going to be a really good fit for me here."

» Blankenship and McLaughlin have been all about respect throughout their competition: The NFL can be a cut-throat business, especially during training camp, when rosters are expanded and guys are competing for jobs year in and year out. That can be especially true with kickers, with just one spot available and all the pressure that comes along with the job.

But neither Blankenship nor McLaughlin are letting the heat of battle create some sort of tense rivalry of any kind. Off the field, they're teammates — eating meals together, enjoying their time in the locker room, going over film in the meeting room.

On the field, the civility remains, but the approach is a little bit different.

"We kind of get locked in and go into our own zones and you can see it when we're watching film. I'm kind of off in my own space trying to stay in my own bubble and stay locked in and he's over in his when we're going back and forth and kicking," Blankenship said. "On the practice field we're just a little more keeping to ourselves, but when practice is over and we come back into the locker room and we're around the facility. Yeah we're getting along just fine."

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Running back Nyheim Hines

» Hines isn't the only running back getting a lot of pass targets in practice nowadays: Hines' bread and butter is his versatility out of the backfield; he can run the ball like a traditional running back, but he's an extension of the wide receivers in the passing game, too.

That's been evident throughout Hines' first two seasons with the Colts, as he's caught a combined 107 passes for 745 yards and two touchdowns to go with 137 rushing attempts for 513 yards and four scores on the ground.

That kind of production is only expected to increase now that the Colts have a new starting quarterback in Philip Rivers who has a rich history of getting his running backs involved in the passing game, whether it's been with Darren Sproles, Danny Woodhead or Austin Ekeler.

That Hines has been heavily utilized in the pass game throughout the first few training camp practices is no surprise, then; but what has changed is the fact starting running back Marlon Mack is also seeing a large increase in targets.

Mack has averaged just more than 17 receptions in his first three NFL seasons, but as Hines notes, every back on the roster now needs to be prepared to be utilized more in the passing game.

"It's a big opportunity for all of us. We all have to catch the ball. We all have to be ready for it. Obviously, my role as being the pass-catching back is important, but all those other guys have to be ready too," Hines said. " don't think I've seen Marlon catch more balls than he has with Philip. So it's really great. Running backs are mismatches and we all have to be ready. I'm super excited and we all are because a lot of teams may forget about the back in coverage. If Philip sees that, we're going to take advantage of it.

"We're just going to hit it five, 10 yards at a time," Hines continued. "We make a couple guys miss and we might take it 50. That's what we're all looking forward to doing and that's what Philip is going to probably help us do."

» Hines isn't scared to stick up for himself on the field: Standing at 5-foot-9, Hines isn't exactly among the biggest players on any NFL team's roster. But that doesn't mean he's going to let himself get pushed around out there, either.

So whether it's on the practice field or on gamedays, Hines hasn't been hesitant to chirp back at anybody who tries to size him up.

"With me personally, I've always been a little bit chirpy, a little bit chippy, but it's probably just the mentality I have," Hines said. "I've always had to kind of be an underdog just being the smallest guy on the field. I always have to bring a little extra because if I don't – I have to stand up for myself out there. That's just how it is being 5'9" and not 200 pounds. I've always known that I could be a target for people to try to mess with me or things like that."

When it comes to his own teammates, however, Hines knows at the end of the day, they're all brothers fighting for the same goal.

"We're all very feisty. There's a lot of guys on our team who are just super excited to play football. That's just what we are. We're just dogs," Hines said. "I think with us doing that with each other, we always have each other's back. We're all brothers in this locker room. We have our problems on the field, but it's never going to the locker room and transcended upon that. We're all brothers and even with your best family and your best friends, you have disagreements but we all laugh about it and shake hands about it and we keep moving on and working."

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Safety Malik Hooker

» Hooker is using the fact he didn't get his fifth-year option picked up as motivation for the 2020 season: As a first-round pick in 2017 NFL Draft, the Colts had the opportunity to pick up Hooker's fifth-year option, which would've kept him under contract through the 2021 season. Instead, the team elected in May not to exercise that option, sending their starting free safety into a contract year this season.

Hooker, 24, has played in 34 total games with 33 starts in his first three seasons with the Colts. He was off to a fast start his rookie season — nabbing three interceptions in his first seven games — before suffering a season-ending knee injury Week 7 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Since that time, Hooker has played in 27 of a possible 32 regular season games over the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Over his three years with the Colts, he has combined to collect 117 total tackles (one for a loss) with seven interceptions, 11 passes defensed and two fumble recoveries.

Last season, Hooker played in 13 games and had 51 total tackles (one for a loss) with two interceptions, three passes defensed and one fumble recovery.

The fact his fifth-year option wasn't picked up, Hooker said, is just more motivation to get the job done this year and earn a new contract heading into 2021 and beyond.

"(It's a) I just have to go out there and prove myself type of thing. That's how I feel like it is," Hooker said. "It's more so me just having to show the consistency that I've had for the majority of last year and just show it more often. I feel like that's all it is."

» Consistency remains Hooker's No. 1 goal this year: Hooker has been bitten by the injury bug from time to time throughout his career in Indy, which can make stringing together consistently strong performances even tougher.

But there was a stretch last season in which Hooker felt he was definitely on the right track, both back in coverage and through his improvements in the box against the run. Now he hopes to be even more consistent heading into Year 4.

"I went probably seven or eight weeks last year having great games and then a few games where it was just OK games," Hooker said. "It's just, be more consistent there."

Hooker also wants to do a better job at creating takeaways, even during times when the opposing offense isn't throwing the ball in his area.

"They don't necessarily have to be interceptions, but trying to get more forced fumbles this year," Hooker said of his goals for 2020. "Just trying to be that vet out there that can lead vocally – getting everybody lined up faster, seeing stuff faster and communicating it to the front guys that can't see it from a bird's-eye view like I can."

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Kicker Chase McLaughlin

» McLaughlin is no stranger to kicking competitions: While McLaughlin and Blankenship are each vying for the Colts' kicker job heading into the 2020 season, both are already comfortable with a competitive type of setting.

In college, McLaughlin, for example, entered Illinois as walk-on, and was a backup kicker his first two years before winning the job his junior year.

After going undrafted last year, McLaughlin would be signed by five different teams as a rookie, including for the final four games of the year with the Colts, hitting 5-of-6 field goals in Indy — and 18-of-23 overall — and all 26 extra-point tries and being named to Pro Football Focus' All-Rookie Team.

Needless to say, McLaughlin almost has this competition thing down to a science.

"It's kind of been what I've been used to," he said. "It's a situation I'm comfortable with and know I can focus on the things that I can control and let the rest play out."

» Without preseason games this year, McLaughlin has appreciated the efforts to increase the pressure during practices: The COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of preseason games across the league, meaning several players wouldn't get the opportunity to prove themselves in live game settings.

With no preseason games, every team's training camp practices have gotten even more important, and the Colts' coaching staff hasn't shied away from doing whatever it can to add a little more value to McLaughlin and Blankenship's kicking opportunities.

Head coach Frank Reich has changed from doing just one kicking portion in practice to breaking it up in several pieces throughout the session; by attaching field goal attempts to the end of 11-on-11s, for example, it feels much more like an actual game setting.

The Colts are also getting the rest of the team involved. Those with uniform Nos. 1-49 are assigned one kicker, and those with Nos. 50-99 are assigned the other; whichever kicker doesn't "win the day" means the players assigned to him have to run additional sprints.

"I think the coaches have done a great job," McLaughlin said. "Like you said, there is not going to be any preseason games this year so kind of putting us in those situations so that we're ready come season, come game time."

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For more from quarterback Philip Rivers' media availability on Wednesday, click here.

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