Colts look to start season with a W without Luck

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Scott Tolzien throws during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Indianapolis, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Sean McVay speaks in swift, forceful bursts of football verbiage, and the youngest head coach in modern NFL history often expresses his thoughts in the second person.

“Really, until you get out there in the game, it probably won’t set in,” McVay said of his historic debut Sunday.

Yep, this compact blond dynamo is a product of the Gruden coaching tree, and the fruit did not fall far.

When the 31-year-old coach leads the Los Angeles Rams into the Coliseum to face Indianapolis, he will be mindful of the benchmark he is setting. Though he strives to keep the spotlight on his players and assistant coaches, McVay is ready to show what he learned from the Grudens and from his grandfather, longtime NFL executive John McVay, during his short rise to the top of his profession.

“It certainly has a different feeling this week,” McVay said. “I know I’m excited about it. I certainly feel it from our players and our coaching staff, and I think by the time (game time) rolls around, it will be a fun time, and it will probably set in how humbling and what a blessing it is to be able to do this.”

Chuck Pagano has been a football coach since before McVay was born. The Indianapolis boss is impressed by McVay’s decision to surround himself with a veteran coaching staff, including longtime defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Pagano fondly remembers his own first game as a head coach six seasons ago, even though the Colts lost to Chicago.

“As soon as they kick that thing off, it’s like getting your first hit,” Pagano said. “He’s a really good football coach, and he’s a smart guy. … It’s exciting. It’s like anything else: You have your butterflies and your jitters.”

McVay also expects jitters, but he feels prepared for the challenges ahead. His career also officially begins in a season opener that will be missing some major players.

The Rams will almost certainly be without holdout All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald. The Colts will play without recovering quarterback Andrew Luck, standout cornerback Vontae Davis and center Ryan Kelly.

McVay hasn’t been coaching very long, but he knows the Rams already got a break in their schedule.

“Well, I’ve got a lot of respect for Andrew Luck,” McVay said. “To say that I’m disappointed not to see him, I probably wouldn’t say that.”

Here are more things to watch:

TOLZIEN’S TURN: Scott Tolzien gets his fourth career NFL start in place of Luck, whose right shoulder injury hasn’t healed quickly enough for the opener. Tolzien feels confident running the Indianapolis offense after a full offseason to prepare, but the Colts don’t expect the Wisconsin product to do everything Luck does. “Second year in, you know the playbook better,” Tolzien said. “You know your coaches better. You know the plays that they’re going to call. You know your teammates better. It’s another year in the NFL, so things slow down a little bit more.”

MISSING DONALD: The Rams’ solid defense is moving into Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, but Donald’s absence creates innumerable problems. Tanzel Smart, an unheralded sixth-round pick out of Tulane, is expected to start in Donald’s place. The 6-foot-1 Smart shares Donald’s compact stature and has impressed Los Angeles’ coaches, yet nobody can replace Donald’s disruptiveness on the line. “Everybody wants to probably make a point that (Smart) is short, but he seems to be a guy who tips the ball as much as anybody,” McVay said. “It’s been a great chance for him to take advantage of those reps, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”

SOMEONE’S 0 HAS GOT TO GO: Tolzien is 0-2-1 as an NFL starter, while Jared Goff is 0-7 after his winless rookie season. The No. 1 overall pick returns for his second campaign with several months of McVay’s coaching and improved confidence in his ability. McVay’s offense is designed to take advantage of Goff’s strengths, with the hopes of getting him into the type of rhythm he often enjoyed in college at California. Goff already felt the game slowing down for him during the Rams’ preseason. “(The Colts) do a lot of things well, and they do have a lot of good players there,” Goff said. “We’re excited to get a chance to show off what we’ve worked on the last six to nine months.”

RUNNING GAMES: If the Los Angeles run defense struggles without Donald, expect Frank Gore and the Colts’ running game to get plenty of action. The veteran is averaging 3.8 yards per carry in his two-year stint in Indianapolis at the tail end of his remarkably consistent career. Rams running back Todd Gurley managed only 3.2 yards per carry last season, but appears rejuvenated after a productive offseason.

FOUR YEARS AGO: These teams haven’t played since 2013, when Tavon Austin racked up 314 all-purpose yards in the Rams’ 38-8 win. Austin has slipped down the Rams’ depth chart due to injury and the arrival of Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, who will both make their Rams debuts.