Colts LT Tony Ugoh Expecting a "Pretty Big Jump" in 2009
INDIANAPOLIS – As Tony Ugoh sees it, his time could be now. Teammates and coaches agree.
Ugoh, the Colts' starting left offensive tackle the past two seasons, said he feels he is back to full health, and after a season in which Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said Ugoh was inconsistent at times, Ugoh said he expects to improve next season.
And not just a little.
"I'm expecting a pretty big jump," Ugoh said during the team's recent 2009 mandatory mini-camp at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
"The only thing I can do is just keep working every day, like I've been doing, trying to get better."
Ugoh, the Colts' second-round selection in the 2007 NFL Draft from the University of Arkansas, has started 23 games in two NFL seasons, and during that span, Caldwell said he has shown plenty of potential to be a franchise-level left tackle.
"He's a very talented guy," Caldwell said. "He's big and physical. He has outstanding athleticism. He was a bit inconsistent last year from time to time. I think that's part of maturing in this league.
"I think you'll see that he's going to progress and come along and certainly play at a more consistently high level."
Ugoh said one reason for the inconsistency was a right knee injury sustained early in the year. Colts President Bill Polian recently said Ugoh underwent arthroscopic surgery on the knee, and Ugoh said during the team's recent mandatory mini-camp he doesn't expect it to be a problem this season.
"We've got a handle on things this off-season and we have a plan going into the season, so that shouldn't be a factor," Ugoh said.
Ugoh, who said the knee affected changing positions, running and lateral movement – "pretty much everything that I do," he said – said he battled through the injury. Teammates said recently that sort of toughness has been evident throughout a career in which Ugoh often has faced difficult circumstances.
The Colts traded a 2008 first-round selection for the right to select Ugoh in 2007, and did so with the idea that he would for a season back up Tarik Glenn, who made the Pro Bowl from 2004-2006. But shortly before 2007 training camp, Glenn announced his retirement.
Ugoh moved immediately into the starting lineup.
"Tony got thrown into the fire early as a rookie," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "He got drafted to learn for a year and the next thing you know he's playing right away. And besides quarterback, I think left tackle might be the second-toughest job to play as a rookie, just getting used to the speed, and it never does a lot for your confidence having to block (four-time Pro Bowl defensive end) Dwight Freeney every day in practice. That can be tough on a man's psyche.
"Tony is a great athlete. He's strong. He has good feet. He's worked hard in this offseason. Hopefully, we can keep him healthy. Obviously, he's imant playing that left tackle spot, and we'll need him to have a big year this year.
"From what I've seen in this offseason his work ethic has hopefully taken him in the right direction."
Ryan Lilja, who started alongside Ugoh in 2007, said "there's no question (Ugoh) has the toughness and the mentality."
"Nobody works harder than he does," Lilja said. "Nobody is more focused out there than he is. He has the mindset of a (center) Jeff Saturday or (guard) Ryan Diem, a guy who is working on his craft day-in and day-out. This is only Year Three for Tony, but he's the first guy in, last guy out. He does all the little things right. He's physically gifted enough, and I think it's all going to come together for him this year.
"If he can stay healthy, and once again, that's toughest thing, but if he can stay healthy, he'll have a great year."
The play of the Colts' offensive line – and the need for the area to improve – has been a major topic in the offseason among Colts coaches and players. After ranking no worse than 19th in the NFL in rushing in eight of nine seasons, the Colts finished this past season 31st of 32 teams, rushing for an average of 79.6 yards per game.
Ugoh, like several other offensive lineman, said the improvement of the unit as a whole is a major priority next season.
"We can't really worry about what anybody else says," Ugoh said. "We can only do what we do. That's what we plan on doing, just going out there and continuing to work and trying to get better. I'm definitely ready to get back at it, now that I'm healthy. We're all anxious to get back out there.
"The only thing I can control is what I do, each and every day – and that's just continue to work. It really doesn't matter what anybody on the outside says or anybody on the outside thinks."