ANDERSON, Ind. (AP) — Four years ago, T.Y. Hilton walked into his NFL first training camp as something of an unknown.
Now 26, Hilton returns in a new role — as the most accomplished receiver on the Indianapolis Colts’ roster. He’s also the oldest member of his position group and its unquestioned leader.
“Naturally guys grow into that role and he embraced that role as far as a leader, mentoring the young guys,” coach Chuck Pagano said. “But really it was by his actions and being here and being present, working his tail off and playing at a really high speed and high level.”
Hilton had no choice but to grow up fast.
He leaned on perennial Pro Bowler Reggie Wayne for three seasons, only to watch him go after the 2014 season. Andre Johnson filled that role last season. Though Hilton clearly outplayed Johnson, inside the locker room the 34-year-old veteran still provided perspective and advice to his younger teammates.
When Johnson was cut in March, Hilton inherited his new job as the sage of the receivers’ meeting room.
“It’s different,” Hilton said. “But Reggie helped prepare me for it, so I relish the moment.”
Coaches and teammates have already detected a difference.
During the offseason workouts and three-day minicamp, they raved about Hilton’s progression. Pagano believes it’s the best offseason Hilton’s had as a pro.
“Me and T.Y. had that talk about being the veteran guys in the room and what we have to do and how we have to set the tone every day and keep the younger guys going,” third-year receiver Donte Moncrief said. “That’s the big thing for us, is just keeping the young guys going and keeping their head on right.”
For Hilton, it’s a crucial season.
After a solid rookie year, Hilton took off. He caught 82 passes in 2013 and 2014 and topped the 1,000-yard mark both seasons. But perhaps no Indy player — other than Andrew Luck — faced a more rugged time in 2015 than Hilton.
With Wayne gone, Johnson struggling and the Colts unable to run the ball consistently, Hilton became the focal point of everyone’s defensive game plans even before Luck got hurt. Luck missed nine games with injuries, handing the reins to 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck, who emphasized the short passing game behind the Colts’ leaky offensive line.
The result: Hilton had to adapt to a new game and a new philosophy that didn’t emphasize his deep speed. For the first time his numbers regressed. Hilton finished with 69 catches, 1,124 yards and five touchdowns — still good enough to make his second straight Pro Bowl.
Now that Luck is back at full health, Hilton intends to use his knowledge and skills to become a steadier force in the Colts’ offense.
“He’s made a bunch of plays, we all know that,” Pagano said. “But now it’s taking the next step.”
The best news is that Hilton may be working with a better supporting cast.
Moncrief made 10 starts and caught 64 passes last year, emerging as a solid No. 2 receiver. Speedy Phillip Dorsett, Indy’s first-round pick in 2015, is expected to make a bigger impact after playing a minor role early last season and suffering a fractured lower left leg. This year, he’s ready to go.
The Colts are still looking for help beyond those three.
At least they know one thing is certain — Hilton is the willing and able leader of the pack.
“I’m just approaching it like I’m a rookie, just making sure I’m writing everything down so when the young guys ask me what they’ve got, I know I can help them,” Hilton said. “I just want to continue getting better and help my guys out in the room.”
Notes: It’s unclear how much — or if — Luck will play against Green Bay. Pagano said joking that he might wake up Sunday and make a decision then. … Pagano said starting center Ryan Kelly (left shoulder) will not play Sunday. … Starting defensive end Kendall Langford missed Friday’s practice with an undisclosed injury. Pagano said Langford was being evaluated by doctors and trainers.