THE NEXT STEP

Colts linebacker Philip Wheeler, entering second season as a starter, said he feels “like a whole different person” entering 2010.

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Colts Linebacker Philip Wheeler Looking Forward to Improvement in Second Season Starting

INDIANAPOLIS – As Philip Wheeler sees it, he got more than an opunity late last season.

Wheeler, a third-year linebacker for the Colts, moved into the starting lineup midway through last season, and in so doing, he indeed got an opportunity to play more extensively than he had in his first professional season and a half.

With that opportunity came experience. And confidence.

Mostly, Wheeler said, he got the knowledge of what he needs to do to improve entering this season, his third with the Colts since being selected in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft.

Now that he has had that knowledge, he said he can't wait to use it.

"I think it's all of that, confidence and experience," Wheeler said recently during the Colts' 2010 organized team activities, which concluded in early June at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.

"I got a lot of different experience, and I got confidence. I got a Super Bowl that I played in."

How much does experience change a player?

In Wheeler's case, completely.

"I feel like as opposed to coming in last year not starting, right now I feel like a whole different person," he said.

Wheeler (6-feet-2, 240) pounds is in a significantly different situation entering this season than last – or than the year before that.

Now in his third season, Wheeler played predominantly special teams as a rookie, then began last season as a backup after veteran linebacker Tyuan Hagler won the strong-side outside linebacker job in the preseason.

Wheeler, who played collegiately at Georgia Tech, played extensively on special teams early last season, remaining one of the Colts' top players in that area, then moved into the starting lineup midway through the season when Hagler sustained a season-ending biceps injury.

With Hagler out, Wheeler started the final seven games of the season, registering 52 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. After playing as a reserve as a rookie, Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said Wheeler's development this past season was critical to the defense's improvement overall.

"Philip has come along very well," Caldwell said during the postseason. "He participated and played quite a bit, just in terms of our (look) squad early on. You could see him grow and develop in that role. When he had an opportunity to play, and really battled it out with Tyjuan Hagler early, he was a guy that just week-in and week-out found ways to try to improve himself, working with (Linebackers Coach) Mike Murphy and working on the little details, in terms of his movements and drops and reads and keys.

"You can even see within a meeting room setting how much he understands, how quickly he has grown to understand it, and he has gotten to the point now where he is quite effective. But he has a tremendous upside. You haven't seen the best of him yet.

"You'll continue to see him get better and better. That's what we anticipate."

Colts coaches and personnel officials often say a player's greatest improvement comes between his rookie and second season, but they also say a player can improve from his first season starting to his second in that role Wheeler is in the latter category, and said he expects to improve because of what he learned in his first season playing extensively in the defensive scheme.

"I think it's even going to take more toward the middle of the year, but I think you'll see a lot more," Wheeler said. "I think I've progressed a lot. I think I'm more polished, especially for the things we're doing here. I think it's going to work out well."

Wheeler said he spent the off-season focused on specific areas, particularly in a fundamental area he said is critical to linebacker play.

"I want to work on using my hands a little better, getting off blocks," Wheeler said, noting that that's an example of an area a player might not know needed work until he played extensively enough to discover strengths and weaknesses.

"I noticed it during the game sometimes," Wheeler said. "Sometimes, I'd have a great game and then sometimes here and there I'd know I need to work on some things. I'd watch film the next day and I can pretty much see. Even after the play sometimes, you pretty much know."

The off-season, Wheeler said, is the optimal time to focus on such issues.

"That's when I make my biggest steps, in the off-season," Wheeler said. "I started the last half of the season last year, and I feel like I can make my jump in this year now."

Wheeler said he hopes that improvement helps give the Colts one of its stronger linebacker corps in recent memory. The team for the first time in nearly a decade will return all three starters from the end of the previous season, and with Wheeler and Clint Session on the outside and Gary Brackett in the middle, it's an experienced group with potential to be solid in all three positions.

"They are some very quick guys," Wheeler said. "Then, I'm a bigger style linebacker. I think we complement each other well and we can all do our jobs pretty well."

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