New cast of backs could give Colts show-stopping combination
WESTFIELD, Ind. (AP) — Marlon Mack spent his rookie season serving as the understudy to one of pro football’s greatest rushers.
This year, he’s playing the lead in Indianapolis.
The 22-year-old running back got his big break when the Colts let 35-year-old Frank Gore walk away in free agency, handed Mack the starting job and offered him the chance to become a star on football’s biggest stage. It’s up to Mack to prove he can live up to the billing.
“You’ve just got to go out there and make a play every chance you get,” Mack said.
History suggests Mack thrives under the bright lights.
The Florida native was a first-team all-state selection in high school and was chosen to play in the Semper Fidelis All-America Bowl.
In college, he set the American Athletic Conference’s freshman rushing record with 1,041 yards, followed his conference rookie of the year season with a school-record 1,381 yards in 2015 and finished his career as South Florida’s career leader in yards rushing (3,609) and touchdown runs (32). He was the first player in school history to earn three straight all-conference selections and the first to post three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Mack’s resume coupled with the rave reviews from his coaches helped persuade Colts general manager Chris Ballard to draft Mack in the fourth round.
He didn’t disappoint in Indy, either.
Despite hurting his shoulder in training camp, an injury that required offseason surgery, Mack played in 14 games and rushed 93 times for 358 yards, caught 21 passes for 225 yards, scored four TDs and showed flashes that he could be the successor to Gore.
His results made Ballard decide not to re-sign the league’s fifth-leading rusher and to transition to a guy who learned plenty from Gore.
“The first thing he taught me is don’t dwell on the past,” Mack said. “Just put on the pads and get ready for the next play.”
Mack also can rely on a potentially stronger supporting cast for help.
Veteran Robert Turbin has been a successful short-yardage specialist for the Colts even though he missed 10 games last year with a dislocated left elbow. Turbin may be used differently when he returns from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
“Guys are going to make mistakes and most of the time when things happen around the league, none of it is purposeful,” Turbin said when the Colts reported to training camp last week. “In the NFL, they have very stringent rules and we have to obviously know what it is that we’re doing, and we have to hold ourselves accountable to that.”
While Turbin sits, Christine Michael may provide the experienced voice. He’s trying to earn a roster spot on his fifth team in six years as he recovers from an undisclosed season-ending injury.
Another option is Josh Ferguson, who has been around longer than Mack but has seen less action and will be fighting off two draft picks to make the team.
Fourth-round Nyheim Hines lined up in the backfield, slot and on kick returns at North Carolina State and could be in all three places again this year. Coach Frank Reich had a similarly sized speedster in Philadelphia, Darren Sproles, and envisions Hines in that spot.
Fifth-round pick Jordan Wilkins is bigger, 6-foot-1 and 216 pounds, and has been so impressive at camp that Reich singled out Wilkins on Wednesday, acknowledging he’s been better than hype.
Reich thinks it’s a perfect script to challenge defenses.
“What I’ve seen is these guys are all good in pass protection, even Nyheim being a little bit smaller,” Reich said. “He’s willing to (block) and he knows what he’s doing and has the right mindset. What I like is the versatility of our players. Then, we just have to see who has that knack with the ball in their hands to make guys miss (and) to break tackles.”
What the roster lacks is a proven workhorse. Gore logged more carries during his three seasons in Indy (784) than the Colts’ six backs at camp have combined (714).
But with Mack finally getting a shot at his dream role, he plans to deliver with a breakthrough performance.
“I know I can do 10 times better (than last season),” Mack said. “I feel like I can be that explosive guy, come out here, make plays and help my team get W’s.”
NOTES: The Colts activated left tackle Anthony Castonzo (hamstring) from the non-football injury list — just in time for the most physical practice of camp. Reich said afterward that practice would continue to have live hitting throughout the remaining 2½ weeks in Westfield, a northern suburb of Indianapolis. ... It took Andrew Luck one week to get his timing down with Pro Bowl receiver T.Y. Hilton. How did it happen so quickly? “It’s like when you wake up and brush your teeth, it’s easy for us, man,” Hilton said.