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Erik Swoope: From college basketball player to productive NFL tight end

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014, the Indianapolis Colts took a chance on a college basketball player out of Miami named Erik Swoope. Even though he had never played football before, the Colts signed him as an undrafted free agent hoping to make him into a tight end.

So in 2014 they went to work on developing Swoope from the ground up, helping him learn the basics of football as he spent the entire season on the practice squad. One of the players who worked closely with Swoope was Rob Chudzinski, the former head coach of the Browns who had been brought on with the Colts as a special assistant to head coach Chuck Pagano. Chud and the coaching staff went to work with Swoope on the basics of football, helping him learn the terminology and fundamental things like that.

“[Explaining] what you call guys and what nickel and dime is and packages and things like that, absolutely,” Chud said this week. “What your stance is, what is a three-point stance, what a two-point stance is, the very basics starting out. I mentioned before that I spent some extra time with him every week going through and watching practice with him and talking to him, explaining those type of things to him. We spent some extra practice time afterwards out on the field and working through things. It’s just great to see it and Hos [Jim Hostler] has done a great job with him. He [Swoope] has done it himself.”

It’s quite remarkable, then, to see how far Swoope has come. He spent the entire 2014 and most of the 2015 season on the practice squad, playing in just one game in 2015 as he was promoted to the active roster for week 17. Entering this season, there was a lot of pressure on Swoope: the number three tight end job was wide open, and Swoope had been the guy the Colts were working with for two years. The thought was that if he couldn’t make the roster this year, the Erik Swoope experiment might be over. He had a nice showing in the preseason, however, and that helped him solidify that number three tight end spot behind Dwayne Allen and Jack Doyle.

And when called upon, he’s produced. It especially started when Allen went down with an injury earlier this year. Through the first five games Swoope hadn’t recorded a catch, but once Allen was injured early in the Houston game then Swoope started stepping up and showing what he could do. And though it’s been less consistent since Allen has been back, Swoope has still managed to make ways when given the chance. Take last Sunday, for example, when he seemingly came out of nowhere to torch the Vikings. Swoope caught three passes for 50 yards and his first career touchdown, and he actually showed some legitimate football skills. He was able to create separation with defenders, haul in passes, and look like a natural receiving tight end. It was an impressive performance, and it shows how far Swoope has come.

“We have talked about it a number of times in here before,” Chudzinski said yesterday. “The first time sitting down with him and going through those things and explaining there are 11 guys on defense and these guys are called defensive ends and these guys are called linebackers and secondary guys. Going through the very basics that you can think of that we would cover and go through with him to develop him into this player, and not just in the pass game, but in the run game to become a guy you can count and rely on. It’s fun to watch. I am happy for him because of what he has put into it. That sometimes gets lost in it.

“He has talent, he has all those things but all of the extra hours of him sitting over there by himself and working and studying and looking at tape, asking questions and trying to figure things out. I know earlier in the season he was playing special teams and he asked [Tom] McMahon how to tackle because he missed a tackle. The next day he was in there asking Mac about how to tackle. You laugh sometimes and you smile because sometimes you see some things that happened to him and you know that is the first time that has happened to him. Something he would’ve never expected. You smile sometimes and you know the next time he will be prepared and ready for it.”

So far this season, Swoope has looked prepared for the chances he’s received, especially on offense. He’s played in all 14 games and started four, and he’s caught 13 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown, averaging 17.7 yards per catch - the highest of any Colts player with at least two receptions. Keep in mind that’s from the team’s number three tight end, too, which is impressive. In recent years, that role has been filled by Jack Doyle, and Swoope has produced more than Doyle did in that number three tight end role in the past two years - and we know that Doyle is a good player, as we’ve seen this year.

Swoope has come a long way since being signed as that free agent in 2014 that had never played football, and so the question is how much room he still has left to improve. What’s his upside?

“Obviously he is a good athlete and he has got strength,” Chud said. “Time will tell. I think the things are there that you really like. You see the ability, you see the talent, you see the work ethic, you see the toughness, you see the want-to. Any time you have those things with a player, with a person, they are going to be successful down the road. There are going to be a lot of bumps along the way and we have talked a lot about those bumps with rookies and young guys and all the guys that are playing that are in those spots and Erik is no different. He is going to be successful, he is going to figure it out and find a way.”