INDIANAPOLIS – Twice Chuck Pagano has competed in Lucas Oil Stadium. Both times, his team was a target for Colts fans, and the cheering throng helped Indianapolis defeat Baltimore.
Pagano was like many newcomers with the Colts on Wednesday. He set foot in Lucas Oil Stadium and was able to call the venue two words – home turf. It is something the first-year coach wants to protect.
"In the NFL, we've always said this, 'You go undefeated at home and split on the road, you'll be in the playoffs every year.' This our home turf, and nobody comes in here and dominates us. We're going to play great football here. This is our house, and that's how we plan to go."
Pagano led his 20-man coaching staff that numbers 17 new faces and 90-man roster that boasts 51 players who have joined the team this year through a two-hour practice in front of approximately 7,500 spectators who needed rosters to start the process of bonding with their soon-to-be heroes. Pagano wants to have Colts fans, who have helped produce sell outs annually for years, to be on his side.
"The 12th Man (is critical). I've been in a lot of stadiums and particularly from a defensive standpoint, the fans make a huge difference," said Pagano. "The louder this place is, the harder it is for the offenses to operate that we're going against."
Pagano admitted getting initial bearings straight in the new venue after only being an opponent and a Combine attendee was an issue. "I couldn't find the locker room," he said. "Once I got in the locker room, I said, 'Where's the field?' "
Some veterans like Donnie Avery, Cory Redding and Tom Zbikowski have appeared in the stadium with opposing teams, while a number of other players have been in the venue previously only as Combine participants. Rookie defensive back Antonio Fenelus played in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game there last year with Wisconsin. Even Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians, in his second stint with Indianapolis, was in Lucas Oil Stadium as a Colt for the first time.
Running back Deji Karim twice visited Lucas Oil Stadium with Jacksonville. He appreciated the nature and passion of Colts fans then and is glad to call this home now.
"When I was a rookie in 2009 and even last year, I thought it was one of the loudest stadiums I've ever been to," said Karim. "My first time here it was a game we could win to go to the playoffs, and it was the loudest atmosphere I ever had been a part of. It was fun. You had to play mistake-free football and they (the Colts) beat us, but it was a lot of fun.
"Out of all the fans, I thought they (Colts fans) were the classiest. They would talk to you during game, and that's fine. At the end, they would say, 'Nice game,' where in other stadiums fans might not be so nice to the opposing team. I look forward to hopefully having this as my home field. They are great fans."
The practice, held with the roof and window open and with the sun bathing the stadium, was the third of four mini-camp sessions. Pagano continues to like the progress of his club.
"We got a lot of things accomplished today, a lot of situational football, a lot of good things from our quarterbacks," said Pagano. "I thought Andrew (Luck) did a phenomenal job, both quarterbacks (Drew Stanton) for that matter in the two-minute drill. I know there were some deep balls he (Luck) probably would like to have back, but I think that goes back to the chemistry and timing (challenges with his academic absence)."
The practice started with special teams, kicking and individual work before team drills began. Pagano thought the practice structure contributed to any uneven performances early in the team part of practice.
"It (the practice) naturally started a little bit slow," said Pagano. "Once he (Luck) got going, he got into a rhythm and got the offense moving and generating yards and points."
Quarterbacks are historic self-critics. As for Luck, he feels there is always more to do.
"(I have) always got to get better. (I'm) trying to soak everything in," said Luck. "(I) definitely don't feel satisfied by any means, but I think I'm starting to have a good understanding of what's trying to be accomplished. I need to get better in all areas."
Luck was pleased with the support he found in his new football home.
"It's great. There was a lot of energy," said Luck. "It was great seeing all the fans out here, definitely the most fans I've ever practiced in front of. It's fun to feel the support. … There are incredibly knowledgeable fans here. (They) know when to get loud and know when to quiet down a little bit. I'm really looking forward to playing in front of the best football crowd in America."
Pagano now has seen Luck in two full-speed practices after an initial walk-through affair on Tuesday morning. Pagano knows the importance of being completely attuned with teammates cannot be over-stated.
"Chemistry is huge," said Pagano. "Any time you watch (sporting events), it could have been the (Los Angeles) Kings winning the Stanley Cup or guys winning an NBA Championship, I don't care who it is everything they ever talk about is chemistry – being close as a team and what we're trying to build here. Missed time, it does matter but in Andrew's case, he's the type of guy who gets right back in it. He's right with his guys. He'll more than make up for that with the rest of this camp and then training camp."
Safety Antoine Bethea started 14 games and four post-season games as a rookie in 2006. Bethea learned the rookie rigors along the way and wants Luck to do the same.
"You don't want to press when you are starting out like he (Luck) is," said Bethea. "You have to let the game come to you. Sometimes you're not going to see things that are coming. When you do see them, you put that in your memory bank so later on you know what you're supposed to do. As a rookie, hang in there with the ups and downs. You'll have good times and bad times. Stay positive. You'll learn in every situation. Just let things come to you. I think he's doing a good job."
Indianapolis concludes mini-camp on Thursday with a single practice. Clubs have two more weeks to work with rookies. Coaches can work with rookies in classrooms, on the field and in the weight room. Rookies have a league-mandated Player Engagement symposium in late June.