INDIANAPOLIS – Colts players have been on hand at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center since the second week of April getting in conditioning, classroom and on-field work in preparation for the 2012 season.
This off-season is a bit different than past ones because there is a new coaching staff in place. Seventeen of the 20 staff members are new, led by Head Coach Chuck Pagano. Pagano and his coaches are introducing new schemes across the board – offensively, defensively and on special teams.
The 2012 off-season is dramatically different than this time last year, too, when players were not working on NFL sites because of labor matters.
The lockouts affected camaraderie and the educational process for players, and Colts players this year like the return to normalcy. They feel work this time of year is very, very beneficial.
"This time of year, we can go a little slower if we have to, and the more time you spend ironing out details, the more it will help you in the fall," said linebacker Pat Angerer, who topped the team last year with 146 tackles. "You always play better when you are doing it naturally, rather than having to go through a thought process. Those benefits you find during the season come from what we are doing now. The coaches are installing things the right way. Their approach is good, and we hope to make everything stick. We are building a foundation right now."
Angerer was a second-round draft pick in 2010, meaning he had a typical amount of spring work in preparation for his rookie season. Rookies in 2011 had no such convenience.
Cornerback Chris Rucker was a sixth-round pick last year, and he was one of five players in the secondary who made first career starts during the regular season. Rucker was like all newcomers last year in that training camp was the first real exposure to the team culture. The regime was unforgiving, with preseason games looming only two weeks down the line. He would have loved this work last year.
"Last year when we got into camp everything was thrown at you at one time and you were scrambling to get everything down," said Rucker. "You were trying to figure out the defense and figure out what you needed to do to be successful. Now with the time like this with no lockout, rookies get to come in and learn the defense as well as bonding with everyone, especially the veterans. That is a big advantage for the rookies this year."
New for Rucker this year are two position coaches, Mike Gillhamer and Roy Anderson. Rucker likes getting to know them now rather than later.
"When you get a chance to be around your coaches, you get to find out their expectations of you, and they can learn the expectations you have for yourself," said Rucker. "It helps build a goal for you and them to set. When guys are able to achieve that goal, it works out better for the team.
"You really get to work on your fundamentals this time of year, and it helps you perfect your craft. This year we have a new scheme on both sides of the ball, and it's important for everybody to figure out the defense, know the holes you have to get to and to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the defense. Everybody being around here and being able to practice and learn the defense together is a big step for us in having a good season."
Tackle Drake Nevis played sparingly last year due to injury. This off-season's work is benefiting him in the ways it does for all young performers.
"The work is really big for us because of the chemistry that is formed with your teammates and getting to know the defense and what you have to do," said Nevis. "I am very much more familiar now with the guys I am around. The more you know them, the more comfortable you are. Getting practices reps right now only makes you better. You can fill your role better.
"I like getting work now because it will pay off in training camp and the season. If you approach this time of year with the right mindset, it can do wonders for you. I didn't have that chance last year."
Safety Antoine Bethea is a team leader who knows the value of cementing basic necessities.
"Around this time of year is when you can really focus in on your fundamentals. When you are doing that and being fundamentally sound, that's when you become a better player," said Bethea. "A lot of people have ability in this league, but you need to be fundamentally sound on every play. That is when you find real impact.
"During the season, you're really focusing on the game plan and who you are playing. We have a lot more time this time of year to work on the details. Do it now so in the fall you're not saying, 'I have to break like this.' You want to be playing naturally when the games start."
As the club's top pick last year, offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo was ticketed for early action as camp started. Castonzo knows this year will be easier because of the foundation laid during the spring. He had no such foundation in 2011.
"Mentally, I have everything down. Going into training camp this year, it's going to be review work instead of having to learn everything new like you did last year," said Castonzo. "My head was completely spinning in camp last year because I didn't know any of the coaches, players, training room people, the equipment room people. If I needed help being directed anywhere, I didn't know who to turn to. The rookies this year are here a lot more. They're here a long time each day. It's a blessing to get the information they're getting. They'll be getting to camp ready to go."
Castonzo would have gained valuable experience as a rookie if he were schooled in details when pressure was less during the spring.
"Just learning all the plays, walking through them and being able to make mistakes in the off-season would have been helpful last year," said Castonzo. "By training camp, I could have had everything down mentally and could have focused on the physical part of the game. I could have gone full speed and not have to worry about anything else.
"This time of the year is the best learning time. If you take the time off, someone else is getting the work in. You can't take that time because you want to be the guy who works harder than anyone else."
Rucker feels the growth because of spring work is a comfort.
"You can say the work this year is helping our confidence," said Rucker. "This year, the confidence will be a lot higher because of the off-season time we have had to work and learn. You know what your role is. Last year, you didn't have that opportunity because of the lockout. It's a big difference. This time of year is the easiest time to learn because there is no pressure. You go out and learn while you work. You can be a little more comfortable."