INDIANAPOLIS – The 2011 season saw only two starting offensive linemen – Jeff Saturday and Jeff Linkenbach – open every game for Indianapolis.
Anthony Castonzo, the club's first-round pick and the 22nd overall selection in the NFL Draft, started as expected on Day One, and he opened 12 outings for the club.
Playing the difficult left tackle spot on a line decimated by injuries and on a team that had trouble hitting positive strides, Castonzo feels he got his feet wet on the game's top level.
"It was different than what I expected," said Castonzo. "It was a little bit shaky at times, but it was a great learning experience and a great platform to jump off of in going forward (with my career).
Castonzo held his own on the field for the Colts last year. His start total ranked as the third-most among the club's offensive linemen, one more than guards Ryan Diem and Joe Reitz. Overall, the club employed seven different starting configurations. For Castonzo it was a learning process, and he is surprised a year has gone by since he was coming out of Boston College.
"It's really amazing. The Combine (ended in February) and I think about one of my college teammates, (linebacker) Luke Kuechly, went through the whole Combine procedure that I went through. To think I was in the same, exact situation a year ago, it just seems like a matter of weeks ago. It doesn't seem like a full year."
Castonzo wanted to hit the ground running with the Colts last year, but spring practices were interrupted by a labor matter. Castonzo did all he could in working with some teammates, and the lockout ended in late July in time for the seasonal preparations to ensue. A training camp crash course was Castonzo's first true exposure to his veteran teammates.
At Anderson University, Castonzo took the field in practices against veteran ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. For the Rhodes Scholar candidate with a degree in biochemistry, he was facing a difficult laboratory. Near-daily queries about his progress were part of Castonzo's routine. Asked in camp about the rookie left tackle, Freeney said, "He looks like what we thought he would look like. He's tough, he's athletic, but he's got a lot to learn."
Castonzo went on to earn compliments in camp for his progress, and he started when the Colts opened at Houston. He started the first four games before suffering an ankle injury at Tampa Bay that ended up costing him a quarter of the season.
Castonzo set a school record with 54 career starts at Boston College, and he had not been hurt since high school. The injury at Tampa Bay interrupted an impressive streak of healthy seasons.
"I had not had a season altered by an injury since my sophomore year in high school," said Castonzo. "All throughout college I was completely healthy. That's why it was a shock to me to get hurt. I missed a few games and came back and played on an injured ankle. It was not something I had done before.
"Mentally, you had to figure out ways to play to your strengths and make sure the weakness and the injury didn't affect my game. In that regard, it was the same game. Physically, it was a little bit different, it was challenging. That's why I'm excited for the coming season when I'm going to be 100 percent healthy."
While he much would have preferred to dodge injury, Castonzo says learning to deal with the game's pitfalls was better sooner for him than having to do it later in his career.
"To learn to overcome adversity in the first year of an NFL career is better than the third or fourth year," said Castonzo. "I'm going to take that experience and build off it, move forward and let's get to winning some games. There was a lot of adversity. I got injured. We didn't win a lot of games. There were some coaching changes. It was a good building block."
One observer close to the club noted Castonzo's play in the latter stages of the season.
"He's a very talented guy who I think had a lot of bright spots during the course of the year. It's a difficult game, and you have a challenge every week with some of the different fronts that you face and the different people that are involved in those. Anthony's a smart, hard-working individual that does a great job of getting himself ready to play.
"I think he's improving steadily. You can expect that he's going to have some weeks where (it was) going to be tough on him. Then he's going to have weeks where he does very, very well and you don't notice the guy that he's playing against that is lined-up over him. Anthony's (made) progress, but part of that in this league is that you're going to have some tough days. You're playing against some pretty high-powered pass rushers that have been around and are very, very experienced. You would not anticipate and expect a (young player) to be able to come in and not have any problems. That's not going to happen. It's unrealistic."
The veteran Saturday saw Castonzo grow throughout his rookie year and play a critical position on the line. Saturday liked what he saw.
"(Anthony) Castonzo's done well. You just have to build on it. It's hard to come out and play left tackle in the NFL. Castonzo's a tough-minded guy and a good athlete. He'll be a good one."
Castonzo has competed successfully on every level to this point. He heard the early talk about his being projected an opening-day starter, and he went about his business. Starting from the outset was something he enjoyed.
"I'm glad that is what happened. It's like a 'sink or swim' mentality," said Castonzo. "You get in there and you either perform, or you don't. That's what happened to me in college. I played since my very first game as a freshman. It was a recycling of that in the NFL. It's the best way to do it – you learn it right away, or you don't."
Saturday has signed with Green Bay, while Diem has retired after a successful career. Tackle Quinn Ojinnaka, guard Mike Pollak and guard Jamey Richard. Guard Joe Reitz started nine of 11 games last year and returns, as does Linkenbach. Guard/tackle Mike Tepper, who started four of six games in 2011, was re-signed after the season ended. Tackle Ben Ijalana aims to return after a season-ending knee injury from last year. Indianapolis also has signed Seth Olsen, Matt Murphy, Jake Kirkpatrick and A.Q. Shipley.
Indianapolis traded with Philadelphia for offensive tackle Winston Justice in March. Justice has started 31 of 47 career games with Philadelphia since being the club's second-round pick in the 2006 draft, the 39th choice overall. Justice, 6-6, 320, opened one of six games this past season for Philadelphia. He was a 16-game starter at right tackle in 2009 and a 13-game starter at right tackle in 2010. Indianapolis added offensive lineman Mike McGlynn, who enters his fifth season after playing with Philadelphia (2008-10) and Cincinnati (2011). McGlynn has started 18 of 26 career appearances, including in 14 of 16 games in 2010, his final year in Philadelphia. The Colts also signed unrestricted free agent offensive lineman Samson Satele. Satele, 6-3, 300, enters his sixth season after being a second-round choice of Miami in 2007. He played two seasons there before being traded to Oakland. Satele has started 74 of 78 games and was a full-time starter the last two seasons.