NIGHT AND DAY

Because he no longer is a rookie, and because he is no longer inexperienced, Colts second-year defensive tackle Keyunta Dawson said just about everything about his job feels different nowadays. Dawson played in 16 regular-season games last season, starting four.

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Difference from Rookie Season Huge, Colts Defensive Tackle Dawson Says

INDIANAPOLIS – Much has changed for Keyunta Dawson in a year.

He's no longer a defensive end.

He's no longer considered undersized – not by his own team, anyway.

He's no longer a rookie.

And because he no longer is a rookie, he no longer is inexperienced, which Dawson – a second-year defensive tackle for the Colts – said means just about everything about his job feels different nowadays.

"It's like night and day," Dawson said during the Colts' recent organized team activities, 14 days of on-field work that concluded recently at the team's training facility.

"You know what to expect when you're on the field. There's a lot of stuff. You try to hone in, make things a little better and a little tighter from last year instead of figuring out what to do. It feels a lot better, because you pretty much know what to do now.

"It's a big confidence boost. You go from one year watching some of the players and going against them on TV, and the next year, you're actually playing against them and doing well and having success. From a confidence standpoint, it feels a lot better."

Not that Dawson played as if he didn't know what he was doing last year.

Dawson, a seventh-round selection in the 2007 NFL Draft, moved from defensive end to defensive tackle in training camp last season, becoming a key part of the Colts' line rotation. Along with Ed Johnson and Quinn Pitcock, he was one of a trio of rookies who formed the core of the interior defensive line through much of the latter part of the season.

"They improved," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said this offseason. "Watching the tape from last year, we think that should be a strong suit for us."

Dawson, who played collegiately at Texas Tech, played in all 16 regular-season games, starting four and registering one sack.

He had 34 tackles, including 20 solos, and also forced a fumble and recovered two fumbles in a whirlwind year that began with Dawson (6-foot-3, 254 pounds) working out for several teams as a linebacker before moving to tackle for one of the NFL's top young defenses.

"It's weird," Dawson said. "I worked out as a linebacker in the pre-draft stuff, because they said I was undersized for a defensive end. Then, to come in and play tackle – I just see it as a blessing from God, that I got a chance to come in and just contribute any way I can."

Dawson's role increased early with a season-ending knee injury sustained in training camp by veteran defensive tackle Anthony "Booger" McFarland, then again late when veteran Raheem Brock missed several games with injuries.

Dawson started three of the final four regular-season games, registering 23 of his 54 tackles in December.

"It was crazy," he said. "I expected to come in and contribute. Some things happened. My thing was to come in and be prepared. That was my biggest thing – always be prepared, because you never know. I always had heard that when it comes to injuries, it's a long season and you never know what might happen.

"I got a chance to play and gain some experience."

The Colts each season rely heavily on rookies – those acquired in the draft and undrafted free agents – and Dawson said the Colts' approach is a reason young players can contribute quickly.

"They treat everybody the same," he said. "It's a good thing, coming in from the beginning, from the get go, they say, 'You're not a rookie. You're a professional football player.' A lot comes from all the good veterans we have, the coaching staff. The way they coach here is they treat everybody like a starter, because you could be.

"Even at the beginning, when everyone was healthy and ready to go, the coaches gave me an opunity to play in nickel packages and stuff like that, to get on the field early in the season. That helped me a lot when it came time to step up and be ready to play.

"It's really good to come in and feel like you can contribute and do a good job."

As he did, he, Pitcock and Johnson became one of the NFL's top young tackle trios. Dawson and Johnson each played in all 16 regular-season games, with Johnson starting all 16, and Pitcock – a third-round selection – played in seven of the final eight.

The Colts last season improved dramatically defensively, finishing third in the NFL in total defense and 15th against the run after ranking 32nd against the run in 2006.

"We always called ourselves, 'The Rookies,''' Dawson said. "We'd always come in early and meet with (defensive line coach) JT (John Teerlinck) before everybody else came in. We took a lot of pride in that, coming in and being able to do a job, to show a quality of work out on the field.

"Ed worked hard. Pit worked hard, so we came out and tried to do our best. We had a good season. With some teams, with the type of running backs they had – Jacksonville and other teams – we had to be on our game every game. Every game, we had to be on our Ps and Qs or we were going to get gassed, so we had to come through and play hard."

This offseason, Dawson said he spent time not only working to get into condition physically, but mentally. He said he often took film home in the evenings, and he said he worked extensively with Teerlinck to "build on the good plays and try to correct the bad plays."

"You have a lot more confidence, and it's just knowing what to do and knowing where to be and when," he said. "You're not wondering, 'How do I take this step?' You've done it. You played 20 games last year. That's double a college season. That's a lot of experience. I feel like a third-year player more than a second-year player.

"You get a lot of experience out there and the way we practice, we practice a lot of things and get a lot of repetitions, so it helps us out a lot."

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