INDIANAPOLIS — Mo Alie-Cox was curious.
Just how much has my game changed in two years?
So he recently found the film from May 12, 2017, and his first rookie minicamp practice with the Indianapolis Colts. What he saw, he admits, was cringeworthy.
“I'm like, ‘Man I don't know how the coaches kept me here,’” Alie-Cox said. “I was literally just out there playing. Like, footwork’s horrible, routes are horrible.”
Fortunately, the Colts’ coaches weren’t too hard on Alie-Cox that day, considering it was his first organized football practice since his freshman year of high school.
Move ahead exactly 739 days: Alie-Cox is taking reps as the No. 1 tight end — and not at rookie minicamp, mind you; on the first day of Colts’ OTA practices.
Not afraid to ask questions, and packed with tons of athletic talent, size and natural ability, Alie-Cox has found a comfort zone on the football field at a rapid pace.
And after getting his feet wet in 2018 with his first two NFL touchdowns and tons of lessons learned as a blocker, Alie-Cox stands to continue his ascent within the Colts’ tight end-friendly offense in 2019.
“It makes me feel good,” Alie-Cox said. “I'm in my third year. I've only played nine games, but I study a lot, so I know what I'm doing out there; it's just about me just going out there and executing.”
The Colts weren’t exactly sure what they were getting when they signed the 6-foot-5 Alie-Cox as an undrafted free agent out of VCU, where he didn’t play a down of football. Instead, he was a standout on the Rams’ basketball team.
In fact, prior to signing with the Colts, Alie-Cox had gone almost 10 years without playing a down of organized football, having transferred after his freshman year to a private high school that didn’t offer the sport.
“I was pretty much forced to stick with basketball and ended up landing a D-I scholarship,” he said.
The Colts were willing to be patient with Alie-Cox, who spent most of the 2017 season on the team’s practice squad. After a strong offseason, Alie-Cox began the 2018 regular season on the practice squad, but it was only a matter of time before he would be called up to the active roster, which came on Sept. 28.
Alie-Cox would make his first-career catch — a 17-yard reception — in his NFL debut Week 4 against the Houston Texans. Two weeks later, he hauled in a 34-yard catch against the Jets.
Slowly but surely, Alie-Cox’s role was growing within the Colts’ offense. Hit with injuries to the likes of Jack Doyle, Ross Travis and Erik Swoope, Alie-Cox was tasked with learning as he went at times, especially as a blocker.
“Mo Alie-Cox is just a huge man that is just really learning how to play football,” Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said in November. “This is really the beginning of his football career. All these guys that – I think about myself, I started playing football when I was seven (years old) and then probably very similar all the guys in the room started playing football when they were seven. He was playing basketball at that time. He is just really learning to start to play football and you can really see him improve a little bit each and every day, get a little bit better every day because it is brand new to him.”
But Alie-Cox really had his coming-out party Week 8 against the Oakland Raiders. On their very first possession in a scoreless ballgame, the Colts faced a 1st and 10 from the Oakland 26-yard line. Quarterback Andrew Luck, lined up under center, took the snap and faked a handoff to running back Marlon Mack.
Initially looking downfield for Doyle, Luck liked what he saw in Alie-Cox’s matchup near the goal line against cornerback Gareon Conley. The quarterback lofted a high pass to the 3-yard line, where only his tight end could get it.
And, oh, did his tight end ever get it.
Showing off his basketball skills, Alie-Cox leapt backwards off two feet and snagged the ball out of the air at its highest point with one hand, landing in the end zone for his first-career touchdown.
“At practice, Jack was like, ‘Mo, run this route full speed.’ Because the ball's supposed to go to Jack, but he was like, ‘There's a chance if the safety does something, the ball's going to come to you,’” Alie-Cox recalled. “So I took his advice and I just took off running, I came out my break, and I'm just looking, the ball was there. I was like that ball is up there, I was going to go it with two, but I was like ‘There's no way I'm going to get it with two.’ So I just stuck my hand up there and it just stuck.
“The ball just stuck,” Alie-Cox continued. “I was just trying to get a hand on the ball, it stuck, and I didn't even know I scored. I got up and I was like, ‘What the heck? I'm in the end zone?’”
The touchdown made its rounds on various “top plays” lists — Sirianni considers it the best catch in the NFL since Odell Beckham Jr.’s one-handed catch against the Dallas Cowboys in 2014 — and it just added to Alie-Cox’s confidence. In fact, he scored his second-career touchdown in the Colts’ next game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In all, Alie-Cox played in nine games with one start in his first full NFL season, finishing with seven receptions for 133 yards — an average of 19 yards per grab — and two scores.
But what’s impressed Frank Reich the most about Alie-Cox? Since the end of the 2018 season, the Colts’ head coach said the tight end has gotten noticeably better.
“We all know Mo is a smart guy, but that’s a really hard position to play. Things happen really fast,” Reich said recently. “Mo from the start was physically good enough, but how fast can you see the game? Can you play with what we call accelerated vision and see things and have the game slow down? And Mo has really shown that.”
And what about the technical aspects of the position?
“I am really excited about Mo’s development because what I have even seen in the short time in Phase 2 when we get out there and start running routes, I really think he is really starting to develop as a route runner,” Reich said. “I mean, we know he has got good hands but last year I thought he struggled a little bit in his route running and he was just very average. I have already seen in three weeks of Phase 2 some really key indicators to me — I mean very tangible indicators that he can develop into a very good route runner as well. He is so long and big and they don’t want to tackle him.
“Mo, man I am so excited about that guy. He is headed in the right direction.”
Alie-Cox can feel it, too. From a shaky start two years ago to making highlight-reel plays and running with the first team in offseason practices, Alie-Cox is ecstatic to see what he can do in Year 3, and his second year in Reich’s tight end-friendly system.
“Last year everything was just brand new compared to the first year — everything was brand new, had to restart, it was brand new again,” Alie-Cox said. “So this year, I already have that comfort level where I know what I'm doing. So now it's just about working on my technique, my footwork, the little things to just help me be a better football player, because being more comfortable helps you play faster, so I now just need to focus on the little details to make me a better football player.”