O-line coach expects healthy competition

Colts assistant Joe Gilbert has a lot of options up front.

The guys in front of quarterback Andrew Luck shuffled more times than ever before last season, but the Indianapolis Colts still accomplished a lot with 11 different offensive line combinations.

They reached the AFC Championship Game. And during the regular season, Luck was sacked 27 times, still too many but an improvement from him taking 32 in 2013 and 41 in 2012.

As the Colts sweat it out during offseason training activities, the questions about the O-line start with right tackle Gosder Cherilus. He won’t participate in OTAs, which raises the question about his readiness for August training camp.

Knee, shoulder and groin injuries eventually shut “Gos” down for the playoffs last season. His play was affected before that in his second season with the team.

After a season lacking in O-line continuity, the Colts don’t want to start anew with another change before they even get started. But offensive line coach Joe Gilbert as well as head coach Chuck Pagano are confident the contingency plans will work should they be needed.

“You’ve got a lot of guys,” Gilbert said recently during OTAs. “Hopefully ‘Gos’ does come back, he’s healthy and all of that. But you’ve got a guy in Jack Mewhort that played tackle for us last year, played tackle in college. Joe (Reitz) has been a really good fill-in really going into four years since I’ve been here, played every spot but center. You’ve got Todd Herremans, who’s gotten most of his starts playing guard … (but) I think he had 100-some-odd starts, and about 30 or 40 have been at tackle. So there’s an option.”

Gilbert keeps mentioning names, although the rest of the guys are more inexperienced.

“You’ve got Ulrick John, who everybody missed last year,” he said. “Ulrick’s had a great offseason and he’s doing a helluva job. He’s coming along. David Arkin, we’re kind of cross-training at several spots. Then you’ve got Denzelle Good, the kid that we brought in. He’s a monster. The kid’s 6-6, 340. He’s got 24 percent body fat. He’s doing a heckuva job and has great feet. His deal will be the learning curve, just being able to handle it.”

Anthony Castonzo returns to left tackle and he’s been the team’s best blocker for the past three seasons since the new regime arrived.

“Week-after-week, Anthony is not only in my opinion one of the more elite left tackles in the NFL, (but) if you get to know him he’s just a great person,” Gilbert said. “I really feel fortunate we’ve got a guy like that. It’s funny. I was just talking to Chuck (Pagano) and (Castonzo’s) starting to come out of his shell. Anthony is quiet. He leads by example. He has become more of a vocal guy. His work ethic would be as good an anybody’s in the NFL. The guy works his tail off, offseason, all year around. It’s good to see that he’s coming out of his shell now and starting to take that role on a little bit.”

And that could be important this season. After Castonzo, who starts where will be determined in training camp. Some of that depends on if “Gos” is back. If Cherilus is ready at right tackle, the Colts still have to sort out both guard spots as well as center.

Mewhort, a former second-round pick, started 13 of 14 games at left guard because Donald Thomas was lost for the season to another quadriceps tear. Thomas is returning, so who starts there? Do one of those guys shift to right guard? Herremans was signed as a free agent, presumably to start at right guard. Former third-round pick Hugh Thornton will also try to prove he’s worthy after a disappointing second season that ended with an injury.

At center, the Colts have Khaled Holmes and Jonotthan Harrison. The latter started 10 games before hitting the “rookie wall” last season. That opened the door for Holmes, a former fourth-round pick, who started the last five games including three in the playoffs.

All Gilbert would say about center is, “There’s going to be great competition.”

The same assessment would seem to apply to the guard position.

“At this time of the year, you have to cross-train guys for the lack of a better word, so when those things pop up you try to go into the season and say ‘Here’s our five, here’s our rotation,’” Gilbert said. “At least you’ve taken this part of the year to say ‘OK, we’ve got options in case things happen.’”

Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson have said for two years they wanted to create healthy competition at positions. It would appear they’ve finally succeeded along the O-line.

“One thing your’e going to find out with our guys is they’ve been working their tails off,” Gilbert said. “You can really see they know, ‘Hey, I’ve got to come out and perform every day.’ That’s just the NFL.”

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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