Despite troubles, Colts’ young defense shows improvement
INDIANAPOLIS — Vontae Davis sounds like a proud father when discussing his newest Indianapolis Colts teammates.
He told reporters this week that he sent safety Malik Hooker back onto the field to retrieve the ball from his first interception, and that he couldn’t contain his excitement when cornerback Quincy Wilson came up with a big pass breakup.
Yes, Davis can see these rookies growing up fast and he’s keeping track of every step they make.
“They’re competing and finishing, and I can see since training camp those guys have been getting better,” the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback said . “With time, they’re going to continue to get better. The more games they play, the more they learn, the more experience they get.”
It’s no surprise to the Colts.
General manager Chris Ballard saw enough of Hooker’s play-making skills at Ohio State and Wilson’s coverage skills at Florida to use his first two draft picks on them in April. Pagano thought so highly of Hooker he compared the first rounder to Ed Reed, the 2004 Defensive Player of the Year whom he coached in Baltimore.
Still, the Colts stayed cautious leading up to the regular season.
Hooker missed all of Indy’s offseason team activities while recovering from surgery and was limited throughout training camp by an assortment of other nagging injuries. Wilson, meanwhile, got plenty of action in camp, but the Colts (0-2) worked him into the lineup slowly.
Last week, they threw both into the starting lineup with safety Darius Butler (hamstring) and Davis (groin) out and the rookies were an instant hit.
Hooker finished with two tackles and an interception in the 16-13 overtime loss to Arizona. Wilson had two tackles and two passes defensed and Nate Hairston, a fifth-round pick from Temple, logged four tackles and his first sack. But Wilson missed practice Thursday with a knee injury.
“It gave us a lot of confidence that we’re capable of going out there and communicating among ourselves without having a vet guy back there,” Hooker said after his first start.
“So for us, I feel like this is just the next step. Now it’s more so building off of this one and getting ready for next week.”
For a team that wanted to get younger and more productive on defense, that’s good news.
The timing of their progression couldn’t be better, either.
It’s unclear whether Davis, who returned to practice late last week on a limited basis, and Butler, who was a limited participant on Wednesday and Thursday, will play Sunday against Cleveland (0-2) . But Davis has been busy passing down some tricks of the trade to his pupils.
When Davis and Butler do return, defensive coordinator Ted Monachino may face some tough choices over playing time.
“It’s a really good problem to have,” Monachino said. “You have three of them (cornerbacks) who have size and will tackle. But you also have guys that have different skillsets. So really, really looking forward to having all of them back.”
Will it be easy? Of course not.
Quarterbacks around the league routinely pick on rookie defensive backs, and Pagano, a longtime secondary coach, knows there will be growing pains.
“They can run. They know football. They can cover. Their job is to cover and they know how to cover,” Pagano said. “Again, guys (opponents) are going to make some plays, but they’re good football players.”
And if they can stay on the field, Davis figures they’ll keep living up to the expectations.
“I’m not surprised. That’s why they went in the first and second rounds,” Davis said. “They’re competing and that’s all you can ask for. I’m very proud about how they approach the game, being so young.”
NOTES: Linebacker Anthony Walker and receiver Chester Rogers both missed practice with hamstring injuries Thursday. Running back Marlon Mack (shoulder) also did not practice. Right guard Jack Mewhort and running back Frank Gore rested Thursday. … Receiver Kamar Aiken (hip) and cornerback Chris Milton (hamstring) did limited work at practice.