A year ago at this time, the Indianapolis Colts had a roster full of players who were learning a new defense. A considerable focus had to be placed on recognizing assignments and figuring out each individual’s role to be successful. This year, there is a very real sense at camp that the defense is getting very comfortable playing together.
Following Wednesday’s Training Camp practice, Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus and All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard shared their thoughts about how the defense has looked to this point.
One player who stood out in team drills last weekend was rookie linebacker E.J. Speed. If you followed along during the draft in April, you would be excused if you heard his name announced and had no earthly idea who the Colts acquired.
There were a couple of major items that stood out, both good and bad, to give fans a bit of backdrop. The good piece is that Speed has shown maturity, leadership, and heart by choosing to go to small Tarleton State to play football because he wanted to stay near his adopted brother Paul Snead.
Snead also played football but was diagnosed with cancer in December of Speed’s senior year in high school. Speed had it in his mind that he would wait for his brother to recover and join him on the football field. Sadly, Snead passed away.
Speed chose to stay at Tarleton State to finish his collegiate career, perhaps risking getting discovered or getting overlooked by scouts at the next level. While he showed the type of size and athleticism it took to get the attention of the Colts front office, he also found himself getting caught up in a “scam” involving people’s personal identifying information, which was later described as essentially credit card fraud.
The Colts front office did a lot of digging and reached the conclusion that the poor judgment he showed was not indicative of a pattern of behavior or a bigger issue that should raise red flags. They moved forward based upon their analysis of his athletic traits and almost certainly based in part upon the kind of heart he showed with Snead.
When asked about his performance so far in camp, Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus had the following things to say:
It looked like E.J. Speed got some reps at SAM. What has he shown you?
“Just what we saw in college. What we saw in college was an athletic speed player that likes to hit and that’s exactly what we are getting. Coming from a small school, our scouting department did a great job of looking at their measurables and those things were certainly high with him. He’s jumping off the tape right now in terms of just hitting, speed and those things. He still has a long way to go in terms of what to do and all those things and how to do it. Once he learns those he’ll be better.”
It has been a lot of fun watching Chris Ballard and Matt Eberflus work on developing a defense with a new identity. The grand slam Ballard pulled off by grabbing Darius Leonard in the second round in 2018 has paid off in a huge way. The development of Anthony Walker in his second season inspired confidence in fans that the position was coming together. Even late round rookies Matthew Adams and Zaire Franklin played important roles in the defensive rotation throughout the year.
Despite the growing confidence in the unit, Ballard and Eberflus went right back to addressing the second level of the defense. They brought in Bobby Okereke and E.J. Speed, as well as edge player Ben Banogu.
Talk about adding to the competition.
Eberflus spoke about how these new additions to the linebacker room could work together:
You had Bobby Okereke, Darius Leonard and E.J. Speed together. What do you like about that group?
“Well we are mixing and matching right now as you guys can see. I wouldn’t pay much attention to the mix and match right now. We got DBs flying all over the place – linebackers in different spots. With that group that was in there and the same thing we like with all of them – the speed, athleticism and hitting and the functional intelligence. They’re all doing well with that and still have to improve.”
What is noteworthy about all three of the 2019 rookies is that both are known for their sideline-to-sideline range and athleticism. They are all known for their ability to quickly read the play in front of them and for getting to the ball in a hurry. Two of them have been compared to All Pro linebacker Darius Leonard.
When Leonard was asked specifically about what he has seen out of Speed, he had the following to say:
What are you seeing out of E.J. Speed so far?
“He’s very, very athletic, very fast and he’s not afraid to put his facemask on you. So speaking of the defense, he’s pretty good and looking forward to seeing how good he can be.”
Is that the kind of guy you can go, ‘Hey, I have this skillset too, let me get some tips?’
“Yeah, he reminds me of myself. We’re both lanky, we’re both tall, lanky, very fast and very athletic. So when he’s out there I like watching the way he uses his hands, the way he comes downhill. So I definitely see a little bit of me in him.”
Colts fans are left to wonder what all of this speed and athleticism could bring to the football field in 2019. There is no doubt the rookies will need to continue their work to become familiar with their responsibilities and get acclimated in the Colts defensive scheme. However, if Okereke or Speed manage to justify the comparisons to Leonard and have something that approaches his impact on the football field, the defense in Indianapolis could really turn some heads in the upcoming season.