INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Ryan Kelly understands the expectations in Indianapolis.
First, the Colts used their first-round draft pick on the All-America center. Then they gave him No. 78, the same number worn by Peyton Manning’s longtime blindside protector, Tarik Glenn. Finally, they put Kelly’s locker next to Andrew Luck’s.
Welcome to the NFL, kid.
“I think this is a big shoe to fill,” Kelly said after his first practice at Indy’s three-day rookie minicamp. “Obviously, I think it just goes to show the club’s importance they’re going to put on the offensive line and being able to protect him. I hope to just keep my head down, keep working hard and do my job.”
Indy believes Kelly can do a lot more than yeoman’s work or it wouldn’t have taken him No. 18 overall last week.
But after using five starting centers in four years and having a sixth lined up in 2014, the Colts figured Kelly was their best hope at finding a desperately needed stabilizing force on the line.
His resume made it an easy call.
The 6-foot-4, 313-pound Ohio native started for three seasons with the Crimson Tide and was part of two national championship teams. In Tuscaloosa, he worked with three starting quarterbacks and quickly learned how to adapt to the changing voices and nuances — a trait that should help him again with the Colts’ season opener four months away.
He won the Rimington Award as the nation’s top center last season, and earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Alabama.
But Kelly is not just a paper tiger.
“Coming from the program that he came from, playing at the level that he’s played, you can tell that he’s way ahead,” coach Chuck Pagano said Friday. “Spending some time (meeting with the coaches) as they install what we had today to give them from a run-pass game protection, things like that, it was pretty easy, and the recall was excellent. You can just tell (his) presence, like you fit right in. It’s not too big for him.”
The Colts knew all that when they picked him. What they couldn’t be sure of until this weekend is how Kelly would perform on the field. He’s already leading the way.
As two other rookie linemen, third-round pick Le’Raven Clark and seventh-rounder Austin Blythe, took their turns answering reporters’ questions Saturday, Kelly quietly strolled through the locker room and toward the weight room in a sweat-drenched practice jersey — before practice started.
Clark and Blythe noticed.
“He’s humble,” Blythe said. “He’s come in here with the mindset that he’s an undrafted guy even though he’s a first-round draft pick.”
And that’s exactly what the Colts need.
In 2013 and 2014, no NFL quarterback took more hits than Luck (210). In 2015, the continuing barrage finally took its toll on the seemingly indestructible quarterback.
Luck, who didn’t miss a game in his first three seasons, never looked right last year and wound up missing nine games with an assortment of injuries.
It forced the Colts’ hand. After years of talking about finding better protection for Luck, they made it their top priority and used four of their eight draft picks on offensive linemen.
But the key part of the solution was finding someone who could step into the middle of the line and make the correct blocking calls right away. Kelly fit the bill, and now he must prove he’s up to the job.
“You’re a professional now, there are things that are obviously going to be more challenging, so it’s going to take time,” Kelly said. “It’s a big challenge and it’s going to take a lot of work, so nothing that I haven’t already put in when I was at Alabama. It’s just going to be elevated to another level.”