WESTFIELD — At times, it seems nobody’s having more fun at training camp than Devin Funchess.
The new Indianapolis Colts wide receiver can be seen before each practice playing catch with kids in the stands. He’s been known to playfully lobby the officials for calls in the offense’s favor, and he’s consistently the first player sprinting down the field to congratulate a teammate after a big play.
“He’s kind of got that happy-go-lucky, excited, big-kid personality,” wide receivers coach Kevin Patullo said. “So he likes to have fun, and it’s good. It brings a lot of energy to the group. It really does.”
That’s one sure-fire way to connect with fans and teammates.
But plays like the corner route he ran for a 45-yard gain to start a two-minute drive with the first-team offense Monday speak even louder.
Earlier in the same practice, Funchess ran a dig at the goal line and caught the ball for a touchdown as he went to the ground with a defender draped on his back.
Those big plays shook up what has been in stretches a fairly quiet on-field performance for the 6-foot-4 target over the first two weeks of camp. They were also signs of the way Funchess can expand his game beyond the expectations of a normal big man.
He played tight end for his first two seasons at Michigan but was a three-sport athlete in high school who also competed in basketball and the long jump.
Funchess has worked hard to become a crafty route runner and not simply rely on his length and power advantages to make plays as a wide receiver.
“You gotta go against quicker guys, smaller guys, just being on the outside,” he said. “So I don’t just try to be a big guy out there. I try to use my speed to my advantage and my quickness.
“People don’t think I’m as quick as I am, but I can bend and do all that stuff just like the little guys. So I just try to make sure I’m doing everything right as far as technique-wise, and it helps me a lot with all that.”
It also gives his quarterback plenty of options for placing the football.
Funchess can win the 50-50, jump-ball type battles, but he can also run past the defense and make plays over the top.
It’s a rare combination offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni plans to use to his full advantage.
“What is unique about Devin is he can create separation,” Sirianni said. “He has that both/and. He has that, ‘Hey, I can create this length away from the defense. Or I can get space away from the defense and then quarterback — not only that, the defense is in my back because I got out of my break so quick. Now you can put it wherever you want because I am so long.’
“So that is a very unique thing that Devin has. There are not a lot of guys that have — I don’t want to compare or anything like that, but there are not a lot of guys that have that. Devin has that, and that’s a great thing for a quarterback to see.”
Funchess has to prove he can utilize those gifts consistently.
He had a breakout season with the Carolina Panthers in 2017 with 63 catches for 840 yards and eight touchdowns. But his yards-per-reception average dropped from 16.1 the year before to 13.3.
Last season, that number fell to a career-low 12.5 yards per catch.
There are a number of factors that go into those results. Funchess dealt with a back injury last fall that caused him to miss two games and likely limited him in others. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton also dealt with a shoulder issue that saw his production dive late in the season.
With Indianapolis, Funchess won’t be asked to carry an inordinate share of the offensive load. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight end Eric Ebron are among the proven big-play targets at quarterback Andrew Luck’s disposal, and the scheme devised by Sirianni and head coach Frank Reich is designed to spread the football around.
Luck was so successful with that concept last year he tied an NFL record with touchdown passes to 13 different receivers.
Funchess feels like a rookie again with a fresh start in a new offense and a new city. He’ll get his first live action with the Colts in Thursday's preseason opener at the Buffalo Bills.
And his focus will remain where it’s been throughout training camp. Trust the technique, be in the right place and make the plays that come his way.
It also never hurts to take a little time and enjoy the journey along the way.
“It just makes the game fun,” Funchess said. “There’s more plays to be made, and there’s more laughs to be had.”