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WESTFIELD, Ind. — Chris Ballard stands behind the line of scrimmage, eyes focused on the interior of the Indianapolis Colts’ upgraded offensive line. No. 12 in the red jersey saddles up behind them, and Ballard, of course, sees that, too.
No. 12 is quarterback Andrew Luck, the star, the man who carries the Colts’ future on his shoulders. Every play, Ballard eventually gets to watching Luck, but when analyzing an offense’s execution, the focus is always from the inside out, from the big uglies on back, because sound judgments about what happens after the ball is snapped can’t be made if the linemen ruin the play by allowing too much pressure.
So, during a morning training camp practice at the vast Grand Park Sports Campus, the Colts general manager is closely watching center Ryan Kelly and left guard Quenton Nelson, the stout young tandem he employs to protect the golden arm of Luck, who missed all of last season due to issues with his right throwing shoulder.
Then, the ball is snapped, and Luck — who is backed into the end zone — takes a quick drop after faking to the running back. It’s a run-pass option, designed to get the ball out quickly and make the defense pay, and Luck’s form is perfect, his delivery is fast, and he whistles a missile on a slant to receiver Ryan Grant for a nice gain.
There’s nothing Ballard would change about the play, which Luck followed with another terrific slant pass afterward.
“You can really start to feel the ball coming out of his hand, see it really carry,” Ballard says. “It’s coming out with a nice, tight spiral and there’s some explosiveness coming out.”
From “nod” routes to “dig” routes — timing routes that require arm strength — coaches and teammates say Luck has been on point during camp.
“He’s made a bunch [of throws] like that,” new head coach Frank Reich said.
A plan to protect Luck
Luck’s ability to throw has been a stark difference from last season, when the 28-year-old sat during a drama-filled “Will he play?” or “Won’t he play” campaign in which he failed to attempt a single throw in a game, preseason or otherwise, following offseason shoulder surgery.
Luck was still having pain back then, and his mechanics were not close to the Pro Bowl level fans were accustomed to. Luck revealed Tuesday that the saga was so bad, there was even one or two moments when he wondered if he’d ever throw a football again.
However, both Ballard and Reich say the more competitive the situations have been this summer, the better Luck has gotten. This helps Ballard, who was hired in January 2017 to revive the Colts, have a sense of calm about the quarterback situation, especially with promising 24-year-old Jacoby Brissett — who led the Colts to only four wins last season after he was acquired from the New England Patriots last September for first-round bust Phillip Dorsett — waiting in the wings in case Luck’s health backslides.
But clearly the key to the 2018 season, Ballard added, is keeping their star quarterback upright, a task he and Reich immediately zoomed in on following Reich’s hire as head coach in February.
“I just came from a team that won a Super Bowl based on the philosophy of, let’s build this thing inside out,” said Reich, who was the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive coordinator last season. “So when I came here and Chris and I started talking about it, it was like we were finishing each other’s sentences when it came to building this thing from the inside out and how important the offensive line would be.”
Ballard didn’t mess around in the draft. He traded down from No. 3 to No. 6 in this year’s draft for a small army of picks, and still ended up with arguably the best player in the draft — and the best interior lineman to come out in years — in Nelson.
In the second round, Ballard selected another mauler in 6-foot-6 Auburn strongman Braden Smith, potentially giving the Colts one of the strongest, nastiest young guard combos in the NFL to sandwich their big, versatile center in Kelly, a 2016 first-round pick. That group teams up with 2011 first-round pick Anthony Castonzo, a steady left tackle who keeps Luck clean.
Smith is still working his way into the lineup — veteran Matt Slauson is getting the first-string reps at left guard — but Nelson has been a plug-and-play fit for the Colts, the rare rookie whose similarity to future Hall of Fame guard Steve Hutchinson makes him a nasty, physical tempo-setter despite his relative youth (22 years old).
“On the first day of one-on-one pass rush out here, it got pretty nasty and a lot of that was him,” Reich said. “He’s different, and I think he has had an impact on our mentality as a rookie.”
Luck, so far, seems to be thrilled with the line, as the veteran even shouted out Nelson, too.
“I will say this — some of those guys up front, the new ones like 56 [Nelson], [are] wide [bodies],” Luck said, before praising Slauson and 6-6 veteran right tackle, Austin Howard. “They have done a really good job.”
Colts believe Reich is right fit
With time, the Colts hope to be a dynamic offensive line that can not only pass block but be versatile with their run concepts, all in hopes of taking advantage of 2017 fourth-round running back Marlon Mack’s patience and run-scheme versatility. Provided Nelson and Co. can improve the league’s 22nd-ranked rushing game in 2017, Reich expects that to make it easier for the passing game — which ranked 30th last season — to torment teams via quick-hitting passes, similar to the way the Eagles did a year ago while riding Carson Wentz and Super Bowl hero Nick Foles to glory.
“We want to be like a boxer, and the quick-rhythm stuff is like jab-jab-jab, and the deep shot is like boom, right hook,” Reich explained. “We want to throw some haymakers, but we want to make sure we throw enough jabs.”
Reich likes to do this early to defenses, he explained, so he can keep the d-line from getting momentum.
“When you give up a sack early, it’s like putting blood in a pool of piranhas,” Reich said. “It becomes like a feeding frenzy.”
Especially in the AFC South, which features two of the league’s best statistical pass rushes in Jacksonville and Tennessee, with Houston boasting one of the league’s best edge combos in Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, not to mention J.J. Watt potentially primed for a bounce-back season.
The divisional slate may sound daunting, but Ballard couldn’t be more confident in Reich, who was hired to lead the team following Josh McDaniels’ surprise decision to pull out of the Colts’ top job after reaching an agreement with Ballard weeks prior. Ballard says he rarely thinks about the situation, except when asked, and the things he has seen from Reich over the past several weeks — the intelligence, the ability to relate to players, the poise — has made that easy.
For instance, Ballard explained, when Reich learned that Castonzo had reinjured his hamstring late last week and it was unclear when he’d return, Reich never batted an eyelash.
“He’s got a calmness about him that all the good ones have,” Ballard said, before naming Andy Reid, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith. “Even when things get hard, he never gets upset. And there’s a calmness to the team because of that.
“It’s about finding the right guy — it’s not about being first, it’s about being right.”
What’s more, Ballard said Reich never displayed discomfort about not being Ballard’s first pick for the job, which Reich explained away by saying he long ago decided he never wanted to overreact.
“I realized in my 30s that as a QB, you have to be intense and passionate and poised at the same time,” said Reich, who pulled off two of the biggest comebacks in college and pro history during his days as a player. “The way you do that is by keeping focused on what you want to accomplish.”
How good does Luck look?
And this year, the goals are simple. Keep Luck upright by developing one of the youngest, most talented lines in the league, all while letting a young, fast defense learn on the job so that the Colts will be ready to roll in 2019.
That doesn’t mean the Colts aren’t trying to win now. The chances of improving on their 4-12 record from last year seemed fairly bright on Tuesday — the final day before their first exhibition against the Seahawks on Thursday night — as Luck continued to show out under Reich’s close supervision.
During one period, Luck dotted a gorgeous throw on a corner route to T.Y. Hilton for a touchdown between three defenders, and there was some serious mustard on it, too, which was necessary to defeat the Cover 4 coverage.
“He had to zip it in there,” said incredulous receiver Chester Rogers, who played with Luck when he was last healthy in 2016. “If Andrew wasn’t Andrew, and he wasn’t 100 percent, I don’t think he would have got it in because it was a bang-bang play.”
Luck wasn’t done, either. Later on, he whistled a bullet over the middle to tight end Eric Ebron, who skied in the air for a touchdown on a pass in which Luck displayed perfect touch and heat.
“That was … whew,” Rogers said. “Those type of throws, right there, shows where Andrew is in his progression.”
In the back of the end zone, Ballard watches Luck deal with a slight grin. The Colts will be young on defense this year, so there are no expectations to make the playoffs or anything this year. But this is the parity-ridden NFL, and if Luck keeps this up and Reich manages to work some first-year magic ….
“I’ve said this all along — sometimes things work out the way they’re supposed to work out,” Ballard said. “We feel very fortunate to have Frank Reich as our head coach.”
When told of Ballard’s comment afterward, Reich — a man of faith — nodded his head. And after dealing with Ballard, the Irsay family and Luck for the past half-year, there’s not a day that goes by where he isn’t grateful to be a Colt, and optimistic about their partnership together.
“I literally feel like that every day,” Reich said.
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