The Herald Bulletin

May 30, 2013

Fleener showing early signs of progress

By George Bremer The Herald Bulletin
The Herald Bulletin

---- — INDIANAPOLIS —Andrew Luck took a deep dropback near midfield Wednesday afternoon, sending his wide receivers sprinting toward the goal line.

After a moment to give his targets time to create some separation, Luck took a few steps forward in the pocket and unleashed a high-arcing pass.

When gravity finally re-exerted control, the football nestled into the hands of tight end Coby Fleener -- who somehow, inexplicably, was wide open at the front of the end zone.

As if to prove the play was not a fluke, Luck and Fleener repeated it almost identically two snaps later in the far corner of the end zone.

It’s just the fifth practice of organized team activities -- exactly halfway through the 10 allotted by the NFL each preseason -- and players still are working out in little more than helmets, jerseys and shorts.

But much is expected of Fleener this fall. A second-round pick in 2012, the former Stanford star should shine in new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s West Coast-based scheme.

He and Luck -- along with second-year wide receiver Griff Whalen -- became stars in Hamilton’s offense with the Cardinal. As a senior, Fleener caught 34 passes for 667 yards and 10 touchdowns in a balanced attack that often featured as many as three tight ends on the field at the same time.

He has a natural chemistry with Luck, his quarterback for three seasons in Palo Alto, and it would seem natural for Fleener to have an increased comfort level with Hamilton also onboard in Indianapolis.

But that’s a notion the second-year tight end quickly rejects.

“I wouldn’t say ‘comfortable,’” he said in the locker room at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center following Wednesday’s workout. “I think you’re always trying to make yourself uncomfortable and challenge yourself.”

Fleener got an unwelcome challenge as a rookie when a shoulder injury cost him four weeks of the season.

He wound up watching helplessly from the sideline as his teammates continued a climb that made the Colts the biggest surprise story in the NFL.

And it wasn’t easy.

“It’s brutal,” he said. “Trying to cheer on your team from the sideline, I was a well-paid cheerleader at that point. It’s rough.”

Third-round pick Dwayne Allen, a fellow tight end out of Clemson, made the most of Fleener’s absence. He developed his own chemistry with Luck, including catching the quarterback’s first regular-season touchdown pass at Lucas Oil Stadium, and wound up with 45 catches for 521 yards and three scores.

Limited in part by his injury, Fleener managed just 26 receptions for 281 yards and two scores.

Hamilton is expected to utilize the tight ends more extensively in the passing game than his predecessor Bruce Arians did a year ago. That, along with the natural improvement many players make between their first and second NFL seasons, are helping to send expectations soaring for Fleener.

In the two padless practices open to the media so far, he’s delivering. Fleener’s highlights Wednesday included a leaping reception in front of a defender in addition to the two Hail-Mary scores.

“You saw today, he made some outstanding catches,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. “So he’s making progress every day. What did he have 20-, 30-some catches last year? That should double.

“There’s only one football. We’ve got some playmakers on this team so he’s doing a great job. He’s right where we think he should be.”

Fleener said more and more of the old Stanford offense comes back to him every day. And he can feel the progress he’s making on the field.

Luck was attending a draft party at Lucas Oil Stadium last April when the Colts’ selection of Fleener was announced. He quickly told the assembled crowd they were going to love having the tight end in the fold.

After just one season, the jury remains out on that count. But there’s no doubt Fleener loves being in Indy.

Especially in these offseason days of spring.

“Anytime you can spend with your buddies, working towards getting better,” he said, “I think that’s the best part of playing in the NFL.”

ONLINE » Colts head coach Chuck Pagano has been impressed with the young players' ability to retain the massive amounts of information being thrown at them during OTAs. Read more in our Colts Notebook at www.heraldbulletin.com/colts.