Colts camp back in session but can’t shake signs of pandemic

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Indianapolis Colts safety Kenny Moore II made the traditional training camp grand entrance, getting a ride in the second seat of Pato O’Ward’s IndyCar.

All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner talked about using these next 19 practices to prepare for making a Super Bowl run, and four-time Pro Bowl receiver T.Y. Hilton contemplated his 10th — and perhaps final — camp appearance.

So while the Colts tried to keep reporting day as normal as possible, they couldn’t mask the reality of how different things will look over these next several weeks.

“This is the first time in a year, this is weird. I almost forgot what some of you look like,” running back Nyheim Hines said as he greeted reporters face to face Tuesday. “I didn’t even know fans would be here tomorrow. Hopefully, we’ll get to interact with them.”

They won’t.

But for Hines and his teammates at least they’re out of the team complex and about to get back on the sun-drenched fields at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.

Here, they’ll start breaking in yet another new starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, on Wednesday in front of what is expected to be a large, loud crowd. It’s the first time since 2019 will attend the workouts on the Grand Park Sports Campus.

Still, the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic are reverberating here.

The most frequently asked question Tuesday wasn’t about football; it was players’ vaccination status.

Indy reportedly has one of the NFL’s lowest vaccination rates, now above 60%, and coach Frank Reich is expected to miss the opening practices after testing positive for COVID-19 late last week — even though he is fully vaccinated. One unnamed staff member also tested positive in the past week, general manager Chris Ballard confirmed Monday.

“I am (vaccinated),” Moore said after completing a bumpy ride in O’Ward’s blue-and-orange car. “It’s a personal choice. With myself, it took a while to come to grips with what I wanted and what I wanted other people to think about me.”

Running back Jonathan Taylor wasn’t as clear about vaccination status but sent his message by speaking through a mask. Taylor missed one game in 2020 after being deemed a close contact to an infected person.

“I’m doing what’s right for me, which is wearing a mask until this thing is all done. I’ve seen some dudes in bad shape,” he said before reflecting on sitting out the game. “That was the worst feeling ever. It was the first game I’ve ever missed.”

Besides, nobody wants to forfeit a game or a paycheck because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Aside from masks and Reich’s expected return early next week, there will be plenty for fans to watch.

Ballard and Reich are betting Wentz can resuscitate his career and re-emerge as a franchise quarterback after struggling through the worst season of his five-year career in 2020.

Those who attended workouts with Wentz in Houston this summer painted a vastly different picture of the guy the Philadelphia media portrayed as selfish and egotistical.

“He’s a great guy,” Hilton said. “We’re embracing him and he’s excited to be here in front of the fans. He’s relaxed and I think they did a great job of getting him into a situation where we could sit down with him and say ‘Just be you.’ I think that’s what he needed.”

Now it’s up to Reich and new offensive coordinator Marcus Brady to figure out how Wentz best fits.

The Colts’ defense made big strides last year after Buckner was acquired in a trade with San Francisco. Buckner believes he has a better understanding of the coaching staff, system and expectations and the combination will help him improve.

But the key to reaching a Super Bowl, Buckner insists, isn’t necessarily Wentz. It’s using a proven formula: focus on football, eliminate distractions and correct mistakes.

“We can definitely get there,” he said. “You guys saw throughout last year, we had some great ballgames (defensively), but the thing about us is consistency. Some games we just let off the pedal or whatever. We all know what we need to do.”

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