INDIANAPOLIS – Youth was served during this summer’s unique Indianapolis Colts training camp.
Despite unprecedented challenges as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Rodrigo Blankenship led a remarkable showing for the team’s rookies. The 23-year-old kicker out of Georgia earned the right to replace future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri by edging incumbent Chase McLaughlin in camp’s closest competition.
“They’re all tough decisions,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said of trimming the roster to the 53-man regular-season limit. “That might have been the toughest one and the toughest conversation.”
Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard described the process as “splitting hairs” between two players the team believes will go on to successful NFL careers.
McLaughlin went 5-for-6 on field-goal attempts over the final four games with the Colts last season in place of an injured Vinatieri. He was 18-for-23 in 11 games as a rookie overall, and he agreed Sunday to join the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad.
Blankenship won the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best college kicker in 2019 and impressed Indianapolis’ decision makers by shaking off a tough stretch of camp and turning in a masterful performance during the team’s final scrimmage at Lucas Oil Stadium.
In the end, Blankenship’s intangibles and ceiling appeared to win the day.
“At the end of day, it was a tough choice, and we just decided to go with Rod,” Ballard said. “I just think – and our staff – we all think that he’s just got something to him.”
The same could be said for the rookie class as a whole.
Eight of the team’s nine draft picks survived the 53-man cut, and most are expected to contribute immediately.
Wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Jonathan Taylor are poised for major offensive roles. The team has high hopes for safety Julian Blackmon once he fully recovers from a torn ACL suffered in December’s Pac-12 championship game, and cornerback Isaiah Rodgers and linebacker Jordan Glasgow should have an instant impact on special teams.
Offensive lineman Danny Pinter is the primary backup at center and can also be used at guard, tackle and even as an extra blocking tight end.
The team anticipates this being a redshirt season for No. 3 quarterback Jacob Eason, but even the one draft pick who didn’t make the active roster – defensive lineman Robert Windsor – had an impressive training camp and was retained on the practice squad.
Ballard emphasized making the roster is just a small step, and there’s plenty of work ahead for the rookies. But it’s clear the team is intrigued by the potential of this class.
“They’ve gotta pick up and be able to handle the speed of (the regular season), and I think they will,” Ballard said. “This is a good group. This is a really good group, very mature, really talented and they’ve had to overcome some obstacles here to get to this point.”
TURAY ON PAUSE
Defensive end Kemoko Turay appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough when he suffered a season-ending ankle injury during an October win at Kansas City last year.
His rehab from major surgery was stalled by the pandemic during the spring, and Ballard made the decision Saturday to keep the 25-year-old pass rusher on the physically unable to perform list and buy him some extra time for recovery.
“He’s still having some pain in that ankle,” Ballard said. “He’s rehabbing his butt off and working his butt off, trainers are doing a really good job with him. But he’s just not there yet, and so we’re not gonna put him out there when he’s not ready to go.”
The Colts claimed tight end Noah Togiai off waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday as insurance for injured Trey Burton.
Ballard said the team is still waiting to make a decision about placing Burton on injured reserve. The tight end suffered a calf injury during the final scrimmage and could miss two to three weeks at the start of the season.
Togiai has a reputation as an explosive athlete with the ability to make an impact in the passing game. His time in the Philadelphia system should prepare him well to play for Reich, who was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator in 2016 and 2017.
“I think there is an advantage coming from the system,” Reich said. “The system’s obviously very similar, and so that should make for a seamless transition.”
Offensive tackle Chaz Green was briefly removed from the roster to make room for Togiai. But Green was re-signed when the Colts placed defensive tackle Sheldon Day on IR later in the evening.
Indianapolis filled 14 of its 16 practice squad spots Sunday, re-signing players who spent training camp with the team.
The initial practice squad members are cornerback Andre Chachere, defensive tackle Kameron Cline, offensive lineman Jake Eldrenkamp, wide receiver Daurice Fountain, tight end Farrod Green, defensive end Gerri Green, tight end Xavier Grimble, wide receiver DeMichael Harris, center Joey Hunt, quarterback Chad Kelly, offensive tackle Carter O’Donnell, cornerback Tremon Smith, defensive tackle Chris Williams and Windsor.