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Catching on: Colts’ receiving corps learned quickly

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The Indianapolis Colts during a frenetic stretch last March re-signed franchise legend Reggie Wayne to a three-year deal and then added insurance in the form of Donnie Avery.

Just like that, Options A and B, sure-handed veteran receivers both, were in the fold for a team with a plan.

That plan, starting with the late-April drafting of Stanford All-American quarterback Andrew Luck, would be to give the first-year field general as many capable targets as possible once the 2012 regular season kicked off.

In all, there would be six new faces, five of them rookies. There were short ones that were fast and tall ones that weren’t. A couple that talked a lot and one or two others who on their chattiest days still delivered quotes in eye-dropper portions.

Character, the constant desire to improve and the willingness to be coached are among the threads binding a group that through the 16-game regular season accounted for 62 percent of all Colts receptions and 64 percent of their total receiving yardage.

The distance separating the frying pan from the fire has proven minimal for rookies T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, Vick Ballard and LaVon Brazill. The years of watch-and-learn granted many NFL novices wouldn’t apply to them. The Indianapolis offense and, in some cases, special teams units, needed them pronto.

“Coach Pagano told us before the season that we are not in a rebuilding phase. It’s more like reloading because we’re here to play now. We’re not building for next year and years to come. Even though we plan to be successful in years to come, it’s about now,” said Allen, the team’s 6-foot-3, 255-pound tight end out of Clemson. “I can’t really say I’m surprised. We’ve worked our tails off to go out and perform the way we have.”

The diminutive Hilton is the most electrifying of the rookies. At 5-foot-9 and 183 pounds — numbers that seem greatly exaggerated when one sees him in street clothes — Hilton’s game-breaking speed has made him a fan favorite.

Of his seven touchdown receptions thus far, the one generating the most buzz is the 70-yard bomb he hauled in from Luck early in the fourth quarter of last week’s 28-16 victory against Houston. Hilton averages 17.2 yards per reception and also has been used to return punts and kickoffs at various times. He’s even carried the ball five times for 29 yards.

“The way we study film and break down opponents, it’s helped us a lot on Sundays,” Hilton said. “The first time we all got together in training camp, just by the way guys ran their routes you could see things clicking then.”

With Wayne and Avery present as mentors and potential sounding boards, the rookies learned, each enjoying a breakout performance of sorts.

Hilton’s came last week with four receptions for 111 yards and the score. For Allen, the Week 9 effort he had in the 23-20 win against Miami delivered six receptions for 75 yards. Allen, who has caught at least one pass in every game except the season-opener, duplicated the six-catch feat two weeks later at New England.

Fleener, who was Luck’s go-to target at Stanford, delivered his best statistical performance in the opener against the Bears with six catches for 82 yards. The 6-6 tight end also snared five Luck aerials against Green Bay and another four against the Jets. Lately, however, Fleener, with only one reception in each of the past five games, is being utilized more as a blocker.

“It’s a credit to (general manager) Ryan Grigson and our scouting department for getting high-quality guys who will come in and work,” Fleener said. “We’re happy where we are, but we’re not content. Guys have played enough football in the NFL so far to be able to do their job.”

Ballard, a quiet 5-10, 217-pound battering ram out of Mississippi State, is not only the team’s leading rusher with 814 yards but a capable receiver, having caught 17 passes for 152 yards and a score. Former Ohio Bobcat Brazill averages 16.9 yards per grab, having recorded at least one catch in nine games.

Asked if the rookies have tested the patience of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians at any time this season, Allen can only laugh.

“A lot of the times we have given B.A. headaches,” Allen said. “But the type of football we play on Sunday is a reflection of the way he is as a person. You’re never too young to be a great player in this league.”

Camaraderie also plays a significant role, according to Allen. In an industry where the routine of looking out for one’s self runs rampant, the five rookies refuse to quibble over who the ball is or isn’t being thrown to.

“That’s very important,” Allen said. “Being professional and having a great locker room makes it easy.”

Wayne’s magnificent Pro Bowl season (106 receptions for 1,355 yards) coupled with the contributions of the rookies has made it easy to overlook the 5-11, 200-pound Avery, who thus far is good for 60 catches for 781 yards and three scores.

Wayne at 34 and Avery at 28 are the group’s greybeards by a wide margin. They have more quality seasons remaining, but how many?

Luck isn’t concerned. After all, he’s the point man for a Colts rookie class proving to be more and more special every time it takes the field.

“It’s been a fun class to be a part of, especially on the offensive side of the ball where you go through those first OTAs together where we looked like a bunch of high school kids in their first varsity practice or something,” Luck said.

“To see them contribute, to see Vick taking over for Donald (Brown) getting injured, to see T.Y. sort of come into his own and the tight ends and LaVon Brazill, it’s fun, and I think credit goes to B.A. for putting us in situations to make things happen and trust in us. It’s been a fun class to be a part of, and hopefully we can continue to do good things and better things.”

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