INDIANAPOLIS —How do you possibly try to fill the shoes of established Pro Bowlers and fan favorites?
If you're Rigoberto Sanchez and Luke Rhodes, the answer is simple: you don't. You hope your play on the field, as well as your efforts off of it, allow you to forge your own identity.
Through three games this season, it's been "so far, so good" for the Colts' new specialists, whose hard work together on the practice field has definitely translated into success on gamedays.
"It's all about getting those constant practices with Luke," Sanchez said. "Going out every single day, just working at it, grinding at it, and I feel like that's the biggest thing is just repetition. So practice is huge, so we can take it into the game on Sunday."
Sanchez went out and simply earned his role as the Colts' new punter and kickoff specialist this offseason. Although the team signed punter Jeff Locke early on in free agency, it was Sanchez's consistency and potential that led the team to pick the undrafted rookie out of Hawaii over Locke, a fifth-year veteran.
Both Sanchez and Locke were vying to be the replacement for All-Pro Pat McAfee, who surprised many when he decided to retire following another Pro Bowl performance in 2016 to pursue a career in entertainment and media.
Although Sanchez and McAfee certainly bring different skillsets to the table as both punters and kickoff specialists, the Colts' coverage units haven't missed a beat with the rookie Sanchez handling the kicking duties so far this season. Through three games, Sanchez has punted 20 times for 925 yards — an average of 46.3 yards per punt — and has a net average of 44.2 yards per kick. Seven of Sanchez's punts have landed inside the 20-yard line, seven have resulted in fair catches and just five have been returned for 21 total yards (4.2 avg.).
Ten of Sanchez's 14 kickoffs, meanwhile, have resulted in touchbacks, while the remaining four kickoffs have been returned for 83 yards, for a 20.75-yard average, ranking him seventh in the league among all kickers in that category.
For Sanchez — who was named to Pro Football Focus' Week 2 "Team of the Week" — while he certainly respects the standard McAfee was able to establish here in Indy, he just hopes to continue cultivating his own identity for the Horseshoe.
"I learned a lot from Pat, just watching his highlight films. You can't take that away from him," Sanchez said of McAfee. "But, yeah, I've just got to focus on myself and what the team expects from me, and just keep working on it every week; keep focusing on the now."
The same can be said of Rhodes. A converted inside linebacker, Rhodes was asked this season to give snapping a shot after the team decided to release longtime long snapper Matt Overton, a community star and Pro Bowl selection in his time with the Colts who has since signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Rhodes eventually won the job after an offseason competition with rookie Thomas Hennessy, and said it's been a learning process the entire way.
"I'm kind of getting into the rhythm of a specialists' role, focusing on what my job is now and preparing in a different way now," Rhodes said. "Working with Rigo, we're out there all the time getting our timing down for field goal snaps and punting snaps, and having a couple games in live-speed action going, it's going a lot better — our operation's getting better — and is something we look to improve on every week."
One of the biggest adjustments for Rhodes has been taking his focus away from his defensive responsibilities. He was a three-time First Team All-Colonial Athletic Association selection as a linebacker at William & Mary, and after playing in parts of four games for the Colts as a rookie last season, he got some meaningful reps with the defense this offseason.
While the transition from linebacker to long snapper hasn't been "hard," Rhodes said, it's certainly been "different."
"It's something that they've asked me to do, so I took it full force and didn't think twice about it," he said. "It's definitely different going from playing 80 snaps in a game to, if we're punting a lot, 10, 12, but it's all good."
Rhodes said he's enjoyed working alonside veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri, as well as Sanchez, who he believes has "done a fantastic job" so far through his first NFL season.
"He's filling his own shoes," Rhodes said of Sanchez. "He's starting something right now in his rookie year that's going to last a long time for him. If he keeps kicking the (crap) out of the ball like he's doing, we're going to be a special cover unit."