Colts' Rookie Class Contributing to 5-0 Start
INDIANAPOLIS – It is not every day fans see a rookie starting on an NFL team.
Even more rarely do they see those rookies starting on an undefeated team.
But that is the kind of fortune the Indianapolis Colts have had this season with their 2009 rookie class, and it is a big reason why the team is 5-0 headed into its bye week.
"We have a number of young people who are playing pretty solid football for us," Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said. "It's highly unusual to have so many first- and second-year players playing so well."
In all, the Colts have five rookies who either start or play major roles on the team: running back Donald Brown, wide receiver Austin Collie, defensive backs Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey and punter Pat McAfee.
Some came to training camp as highly-touted draft picks, others as free agents just trying to make the team. But one way or another, the five rookies received an opportunity to prove themselves and took advantage of it.
Powers, the team's third-round draft pick, has started four games at cornerback this season and has been commended by Caldwell for his maturity. Powers said one of the reasons he and other rookies have been able to contribute on the field early this season has been their approach off it.
"More than anything, it is a mental thing," he said. "You have to come in with the right mindset and just sort of watch how the veterans approach everything. You just have to come in like you want to contribute in any fashion possible."
Thanks to the culture already established in the Colts' veteran locker room, Powers said the rookies have subscribed to the team's 'Next Man Up' theory and are prepared always when called upon.
"Lacey and I were put in a situation when a couple of guys unfortunately went down in training camp, so we were able to get more reps early. Pat comes along and shows he can punt and handle that responsibility. And Donald, being such a high draft pick, his mindset basically has been, 'I have to show people I can contribute,' and Austin is the same way.
"That's just how we took it and we are running with it right now," Powers said.
Lacey and Powers were the Colts' starting cornerbacks against Tennessee last Sunday and the tandem helped hold the Titans to just 155 passing yards in Indianapolis' 31-9 victory.
Starting cornerback Kelvin Hayden, who missed the game with a hamstring injury, said the two rookies have handled everything thrown at them.
"They came right in and they were on it," he said. "That's great to see. The better those guys are, and the better we are as a secondary, the better off we are as a whole."
Hayden said it helps that the two rookies played at big games in college, Powers at Auburn and Lacey at Oklahoma State.
"And as far as knowing the plays, the defense and understanding the situation, I really think they are ahead of the curve," he said.
While Powers has been playing in a starting role since the beginning of the season, Lacey recently has emerged as a significant contributor. Against Tennessee and Miami, the undrafted rookie broke up passes in the end zone that would have been touchdowns.
"He's a guy that caught our eye fairly early," Caldwell said. "You knew he had some very unusual qualities. He has exceptional quickness. He has good ball skills. He can read extremely well for a young guy, and he can make plays on the deep ball. … He doesn't get rattled. He has taken the challenge on and continues to get better each week. He's a guy we certainly have been pleased with. We look forward to him progressing and getting better. He's been a big plus for us."
Another big plus for the Colts has been Collie, the team's fourth-round pick out of Brigham Young.
Over the past two games, Collie has caught 14 passes for 162 yards and three touchdowns. Even more importantly, it appears the team's first-year slot receiver is gaining the trust of his quarterback, Peyton Manning.
Collie has caught two touchdown passes in two-minute drills the past two weeks, giving the Colts a big boost heading into halftime in two straight games.
"Typically rookies do not have the type of year that he is having," Caldwell said. "There are very few guys that come into the league and can be effective week in and week out. He has shown that ability."
Caldwell said the rookie wide receiver has a knack for finding open areas and the hands to catch passes consistently.
"When he gets the ball in his hands, he knows what to do with it. (At Tennessee) he showed his ability to break tackles. He wants to get that ball in the end zone," Caldwell said.
Like Collie, Brown has given a big boost to the offense, particularly the run game. He has totaled 292 yards in five games and scored two touchdowns.
And McAfee, the team's punter and kick-off specialist, has provided the Colts with strong field position all season. The rookie is averaging 45.3 yards per punt.
After having "difficulties" on kickoffs in years past, Colts President Bill Polian said the team's sixth-round pick has "played a major role" in alleviating those problems.
"He kicks the ball very high and he kicks it very deep. He is capable of kicking touchbacks, which really helps, both in terms of field position and saving wear and tear on your coverage unit," he said.
While McAfee, Collie, Powers and the rest of the Colts' rookie class still have a ways to go, they are already making major contributions to an NFL team, a fact some of them still cannot get over.
"So far this is everything I imagined," Powers said. "This has been a dream I've been chasing every since I was six or seven years old.
"It is not easy by any means, and it is a lot of work, but I love it."