This time of year most of the hype revolves around how the Indianapolis Colts 53-man roster will shake out. Each position has its front runners and underdogs but we often only invest our time in learning more about veterans, our draft picks, or the popular free agents who join the team that fans are expecting to make an immediate impact.
This year the Colts have had some interesting additions to the inside linebacker position, adding players like Bostic and Spence through free agency and drafting Walker demands a lot of attention. The team has also returned two second-year players in Antonio Morrison and Edwin Jackson who started the final handful of games last year.
Though he might be overlooked in all this activity, the team has also retained a lesser known linebacker who just might find his way onto the roster.
Luke Rhodes is an undrafted free agent from the 2016 class, was signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, subsequently released as part of roster cuts and signed to the Colts practice squad a month later. Injuries and suspensions helped him make his way to the active roster in December, and now he is trying to battle his way back onto the roster through an even more crowded group at his position.
But, who was Luke Rhodes before all of this? Where did he come from? What was the hype on him coming out of high school when deciding where to go to play college ball?
I spoke with Rhodes’ high school football coach, John Barton, to get a better understanding about a player battling to stake his claim throughout the Colts’ training camp and preseason.
Growing up Rhodes was friends with Barton’s son. Riding to high school games together with Barton’s wife, getting an early dose of the scent of Fall and organically developing a love for the game of football just by being a kid.
“He was a great kid, from a youngster to a young man. He was curious and unique – he invented what kids would call a suicide slurpee nowadays. Just good, respectful and fun to be around.” Barton explained, “I remember one time he was riding with my wife up to Erie for a game and my wife turned around in the car to talk to the boys and she couldn’t find Luke. Luke had unlatched the drop down seats and climbed back into the trunk – my wife obviously freaked out, but they soon were laughing about it. That was just Luke.”
As the boys got older and closer to high school, Barton could tell Rhodes was going to be a great player. “Even in his early days he had the right demeanor, the approach and he was so athletic. It was obvious, and he just always kept getting better.” But, it wasn’t just football that Rhodes excelled in. It didn’t matter what he was doing, he was going to be good at it whether it was school, football or whatever he was getting involved in.
Luke’s father was an assistant coach to Barton and though Rhodes had virtually grown up with the Barton family, he always understood the difference between the personal and football sides of the situation. “I coached him hard, but he took it very well and was extremely easy to coach. It was an interesting dynamic, as you can imagine, I was coach Barton but I was also his friend’s dad. He was always respectful and never lost sight of the appropriate way to act on the field.”
The attention ramped up when Rhodes was a junior in high school. There’s always a certain year in young player’s life when they really hit their stride. Barton said “The requests for his film, the calls from coaches, he really blossomed his junior year. He was one of the best players on the field before that too, but it really changed that season.”
According to Barton, Rhodes became a special player in that season.
“He had the great instincts, he understood and diagnosed everything very quickly, and always respected and had the appreciation for the need to understand his opponents. He became very serious about the game. People were watching him, wanting him to come to their camps – he was getting a lot of attention from some MAC schools, like Bowling Green and others, and some other schools were wanting to know about him as well.”
Most pro players were their team’s best player at some point. Rhodes was Hollidaysburg’s captain of the team, and was the team MVP. Aside from being a great teammate and being a leader, those outside of the team were seeing something special in Rhodes as well.
“I sent his tape to Joe Butler, who runs the Metro Index out of Pittsburgh, because we thought Luke was something special – we wanted to see if others thought so too.” Butler is the go-to source for college coaches about recruits in western Pennsylvania. Barton continued, “He called me back and said that he agreed that Luke was something else. He said that what he saw was ‘very reminiscent of what he once saw in Sean Lee’ and that was extremely high praise as you can imagine.”
Sean Lee went to Upper St. Clair High School, and for Rhodes to be compared to him in any way would most certainly be considered to be the acknowledgment of great potential. I mean Lee went to ‘Linebacker-U’ and was a stud, before going on to be a second-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys.
Rhodes decided on William & Mary in the end who “showed him the most love” as Barton stated. Bob Shoop, now the Tennessee Volunteers defensive coordinator, was the defensive coordinator as Rhodes was in high school. Rhodes talent was evident, and Shoop recognized it very early on and recruited him very hard. This led to a relationship that Rhodes wanted to continue. “Shoop sent him a great offer, and he (Rhodes) was really impressed with the school – they were one of his favorites very early on.”
Barton says that he and Rhodes get to see each other occasionally when he comes back to town. “I got to see him at a girls basketball game while he was getting ready for the draft – he thought he’d be drafted, he got a lot of interest and got a lot of calls just before end of draft and afterwards as well. Like any kid in his situation, he wanted to get drafted, but he’s just a kid that will make the best of whatever situation he’s in.”
Barton says that there’s “a real feeling of love for Luke around here, the community is rooting hard for him because he has shown the community that he loves them – we’re all really pulling for him.”
Finally I wanted to know what Barton saw in Rhodes that made him certain that he could be a success in the NFL. Without hesitating Barton enthusiastically stated “His passion for excellence, I don’t mean to be cliché here, but you have to have the motor – that special motor to be excellent. Very few can get to that level and make it a career. How much passion, the will you have to be great and the determination you have to complete what you set out to achieve. His ability to be incredibly self-disciplined. He’s very coachable, smart and hardworking and that will make the difference.”
We’ve seen that Luke Rhodes is a player that the Colts like quite a bit. He’s shown that he’s versatile, and willing to do whatever it takes to make the 53-man roster. He’s working as a longsnapper, he’s working with the special teams on kick and punt teams, and he’s been very solid at linebacker as well.
When you’re on the field with guys who were all the best players on their high school and college teams, you’ve got to find a way to stand out when not being a high draft selection — or a draft selection at all. Rhodes is doing everything necessary to find a role on this roster, and aside from his quality play as a somewhat unknown member of the team thus far, he’s so easy to root for.
Everything that Coach Barton saw in him early on in high school, others saw it in him when running tape for college coaches, which ultimately translated to the NFL with teams seeing him as a priority undrafted free agent. Now, we get to witness his path and whether or not it leads him to a roster spot, we’ll have a greater appreciation for how hard he has worked to get where he wants to be.