The Herald Bulletin

January 9, 2014

All eyes on T.Y.

By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin

---- — ANDERSON — Reggie Dunn's signing by New England on Tuesday did not draw the fanfare of former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch's arrival in Indianapolis.

But, make no mistake, Dunn is playing a vital role in preparation for Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game.

A speedster coming out of the University of Utah, the undrafted rookie has spent time with Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Cleveland and Miami at some point this season. He set an NCAA record with five 100-yard kickoff return touchdowns, and that kind of quickness is a highly sought after commodity in the NFL.

Living up to his reputation to leave no detail undissected, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick brought Dunn onboard with one specific purpose: emulate Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton in practice this week.

That's the kind of attention a 24-year-old draws when he catches 13 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns in just his second career playoff game.

"When Reg went down, the main thing he always told me was when my number is called, make sure I'm ready," Hilton said, referencing veteran teammate Reggie Wayne's season-ending knee injury. "Right now, my number is being called, and I'm ready. I'll make sure I'm in the spots (quarterback) Andrew (Luck) wants me in and he's delivering the ball."

Hilton most certainly was in the right spot late in the fourth quarter last Saturday against Kansas City. With the Colts in the midst of the second-largest comeback in playoff history and facing first down at their own 36-yard line, Luck turned to his receiver as the offense broke the huddle and said, "Run, just run."

Hilton ran.

He ran past Chiefs defensive backs Quentin Demps and Kendrick Lewis, splitting them on a seam route straight down the middle of the field. And he kept running after Luck placed a perfect pass into his hands directly in stride.

By the time he reached the end zone, the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd was at full roar. Hilton leapt into the air and spiked the football, creating an image from the game nearly as iconic as his quarterback's dive into the same end zone after a fumble recovery.

No one on the Indianapolis sideline was particularly surprised it was Hilton who made the day's game-breaking play.

"His preparation is really impressive," Luck said. "He's not just an athlete. He's not just a 'playground-go-make-a-play' guy. He's a football player. He's a professional. He was always in Reggie's ear last year about how to do things. He's always in his ear this year, still. It's been really fun to play with him."

Not so much fun to play against him.

This season, he became the first Indianapolis wide receiver other than Wayne or Marvin Harrison to have a 1,000-yard season since Brandon Stokley in 2004. He finished with 1,083 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 13.2 yards per reception.

He had 14 catches for 251 yards and two touchdowns in the first two games after Wayne was lost for the season on Oct. 20. But defenses adjusted, and first-year offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton had to find new ways to get the ball into his most dangerous offensive weapon's hands.

As the win against Kansas City showed, that process is moving along nicely. But now the wide receiver finds himself squarely in Belichick's crosshairs.

"He's obviously had a real productive season," the Patriots head coach said. "He's pretty dangerous on everything. He's caught long passes, intermediate passes, short catch-and-run plays. He's very quick, fast, explosive, good with the ball in his hands. Runs good routes. Hard guy to tackle. So he can beat you in a lot of different ways."

Belichick has made a living devising ways to take players like Hilton away from opponents. And the signing of Dunn to the practice squad proved just how deep his preparation can go.

The Patriots most likely will match top cornerback Aqib Talib against the Colts' star with occasional help from a safety over the top. But Indianapolis can expect plenty of change-ups as the game plays out.

"The main thing for me is just not to get frustrated," Hilton said. "Just continue playing my game and don't worry about what they're doing. Just do what your team asks you to do and just don't try to do too much."

Hilton credits an offseason trip to Miami with Luck, Wayne and LaVon Brazill for helping him take the next step this season. Now its taken him into the biggest game of his career.

Indianapolis and New England have a storied postseason history dating back more than a decade. And Hilton is excited to help write a new chapter in the rivalry.

"A few veterans have been a part of it," he said. "They have history, Colts vs. Patriots, great history. But for us, this is new to us. The history continues with the two teams, elite teams. We're going to be ready."