INDIANAPOLIS — Center Ryan Kelly looks around the Indianapolis Colts’ huddle and knows all the names and numbers.
Sure, guards Jack Mewhort and Joe Haeg have switched spots, for now, but everyone else is back in their old, familiar places.
Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is still protecting the quarterback’s blind side. Second-year tackle Le’Raven Clark seems to have found a home on the right side of the offensive line. And Kelly continues to call out the signals at center.
But Kelly is less concerned about where his teammates line up than keeping the Colts’ quarterbacks upright, something he expects to improve in 2017.
“Obviously, it’s a little different not having Jack (Mewhort) over there on the left, but I feel pretty confident about where we are at right now. Joe (Haeg) played four different positions last year, so I think he’s going to be just fine,” Kelly said. “But hopefully it’s five guys working together.”
The Colts have spent most of Andrew Luck’s first five seasons searching for the right five.
But injuries, free agent busts and poor draft picks usually forced Indy to take a piecemeal approach that never really worked.
In 70 career starts, Luck has been sacked 2.2 times per game and endured more than 450 hits.
The result: Luck missed 10 games with injuries over the past two seasons with the Colts going 8-8 and missing the playoffs both times.
Luck still hasn’t taken a practice snap in 2017 after having offseason surgery to repair a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder, an injury he sustained early in the 2015 season. New general manager Chris Ballard is hopeful Luck will start the Sept. 10 regular-season opener at Los Angeles, though there is no official timetable for his return.
“He’s getting better, getting stronger,” Ballard told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Whenever Luck returns, he should benefit from the investments Indy has made in protecting him.
The Colts, even without the injured Mewhort late last season, showed significant improvement over the final month. After allowing 38 sacks in the first 11 games, Luck went down only six more times in the last five and wasn’t sacked at all by Minnesota or Oakland.
With Mewhort, perhaps Indy’s best linemen, back on the field, the Colts could open this season with five experienced starters and the promise of bringing back the kind of continuity they’ve been lacking.
“I think what happened is they kind of stayed the course last season,” offensive line coach Joe Philbin said. “They continued to believe in the system, the fundamentals and you hope they buy into it. Sometimes it doesn’t happen overnight.”
But over the offseason, the transformation continued.
The five projected starters mostly stayed in town where they worked out, hung out and ate together. By nearly every account, it was as if last season never ended and they were raring to go when training camp opened Saturday.
“I think there’s kind of a new standard we are trying to set for our team,” Haeg said after Tuesday’s practice, Indy’s first in pads. “I mean we’ve only had three practices, but I think you can kind of tell that there’s a little bit of a different mentality that we are starting to build on.”
Ballard, Philbin and coach Chuck Pagano all see changes heading into the fall.
So does running back Frank Gore, who continually praised the offensive line last season when others wanted to dissect every flaw.
But now the linemen are motivated to get in sync for an even better second season.
“We know that we are a big part of this football team’s success,” Mewhort said. “So we have to play at a high level for us to be a quality team.”