Doyel: Colts better be better with new Luck, new look

Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich during the Colts training camp at Grand Park in Westfield on Monday, August 6, 2018.

INDIANAPOLIS — They look different, and by that I mean: They look better. They sound different, and by that I mean: better. Will the Indianapolis Colts play different? Will they play – go ahead, dream a little dream – better?

We’ll start finding out Thursday night when the Colts visit Seattle in their 2018 NFL exhibition opener, though this evolution of theirs – and this discovery of ours – will be an ongoing process in what amounts to a free year for the new coach (Frank Reich), the new coordinators (Nick Sirianni, offense; Matt Eberflus, defense) and the franchise quarterback’s new shoulder (Andrew Luck, right).

But so far? So good.

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It’s not just the little things. It’s everything. But it starts with the little things, the way this coaching staff expects adult behavior from its players on the field. It’s the linebackers doing a drill and apparently doing it wrong, and Eberflus blowing his whistle and making every last one of them hit the deck to do push-ups. It’s an offensive lineman flinching before the snap, drawing a false-start penalty, and being pulled off the field by Sirianni to think about his mistake.

It’s accountability, something the Colts have lacked since 2012 when they hired a general manager nobody respected and a coach nobody feared, and the result was an on-field sense of entitlement that had the Colts playing some of the dumbest, most annoyingly unprepared football in the league.

Are those days over? Looks like it. Sounds like it. We’ll see what we see, but the signs are there, and they sound like the new coach being asked about fights flaring up in practice and saying this:.

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“Here’s the way we talk about it,” Reich says, and already this is feeling different, more refined, less blunt-instrument than the way the previous staff discussed things. “What we talk about is what I’ve learned over the years, and what we’ve all learned is that the guys who know how to do that and can play tough but understand how to pull off, those are the guys that understand football. They understand spacing relationships.

“The guys that can’t figure out how to do that become dangerous in a bad way – I look at players like that, I’m not saying that we have any here, but in my past, they’re dangerous. You don’t want those guys on the team because they get you beat. Those kind of players get you beat.”.

Sounds different, right? Sounds better. We’ll see what happens Thursday in Seattle and beyond, and then we’ll see – because players are human, and humans make mistakes – how their bosses respond. But the accountability with the 2018 Colts seems to start well beyond the field, up in the front office where general manager Chris Ballard operates, and in the coaching offices where Reich and Co. Work with Ballard to shape the roster.

“The biggest factor,” Reich says, “is getting the right guys in the building to start. I learned that a long, long time ago when I was playing and my coach was Marv Levy and Bill Polian was the GM. It was always about: Get self-motivated players who want it and who are in it for the right reasons, who it’s team first. It’s not just about all of the things that you get from doing this. It’s about accomplishing something together. A huge, huge – I can’t overstate how important it is to get the right guys in the building.”.

That’s the big picture, and it sounds like the Colts are in the best hands since Polian and Tony Dungy were in charge. We’ll see.

What we can see, right now – and what you will see in Seattle on Thursday, when most of you get your first look at the 2018 Indianapolis Colts – is a team that looks different in tangible ways. Some of it is obvious, as easy as 1, 2, … 12. Because Andrew Luck is back, and the man whose beard inspired a Civil War-themed Twitter account is like the elixirs and tonics they sold back then: Andrew Luck is good for what ails ya.

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Everything looks better with No. 12 under center, but these Colts look better regardless. The offensive line, neglected for so long, has three first-round picks in center Ryan Kelly, left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Anthony Castonzo – though Castonzo (hamstring) won’t play in Seattle – and two legit veterans holding down the other two starting spots: right guard Matt Slauson (108 NFL games, 108 starts) and right tackle Austin Howard (92 NFL games, 88 starts). And lurking in the background is a second-round pick (Braden Smith) getting snaps at guard and tackle.

The line looks better, and running back Marlon Mack feels better. He played his rookie season – all 16 games – with a shoulder he injured in the preseason but didn’t have surgically repaired until after the season. How will that translate on the field? We’ll have to see, and we will; Frank Gore’s departure opened the starting spot, and Mack already seems to have won it.

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Several players came to camp in better shape this summer, and not just in gaseous, unprovable ways – “Best shape of my life,” is all we ever heard during recent Colts training camps – but in quantifiable ways. Defensive end Tarell Basham, a player of significant importance in Eberflus’ 4-3 scheme, played last season at 270 pounds; he’s down to 250. Tight end Erik Swoope dropped 19 pounds.

And 28-year-old receiver T.Y. Hilton, whose production since entering the league in 2012 suggests that whatever he’s doing in the offseason is just fine – Hilton’s season averages: 72 catches, 1,140 yards, six touchdowns – cut out fast food this summer. He says this is the best he has felt since college.

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“I feel 21,” he says.

Are the Colts sitting on a blackjack? Well, no. And don’t hit me. They’re too inexperienced at cornerback, safety and linebacker for us to know too much about that side of the ball, other than this: We’ll see speed. And that alone is a major upgrade on a defense that did the impossible in recent seasons, playing small and slow.

This defense will be on the smallish side, but Eberflus’ 4-3 defensive front demands speed, and … Here. Listen to the Colts’ new defensive coordinator:.

“We want linebackers that can move and wreck like a defensive back,” Eberflus says. “Defensive ends can move like linebackers.”.

So far, so good. Rookies Darius Leonard and Skai Moore bring Palmetto State speed to linebacker, with Leonard (out of South Carolina State) and Moore (South Carolina) repeatedly making big plays in camp.

“Our defensive scheme (is) built around: Keep it simple and play fast,” Reich says. “So what I’ve seen in practice is the speed at which we are playing is picking up. I stand behind the offense obviously most of the time and I have felt it more and more every day: the presence of the rush, the speed of the rush and getting off the ball. There’s always things that we need to clean up, but that’s been very palpable to me.”.

They are designed to play faster. They are urged to play smarter. They are being put through more punishing practices than recent Colts training camps – Reich says his teams will be defined by toughness – so they are being coached to play tougher.

Sounds great, obviously. How will it actually look? We’ll see, starting Thursday, but it just seems different around here for the Colts. Just seems … Better.

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter: @GreggDoyelStar or at facebook.Com/gregg.Doyel.

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