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NFL

Colts coach: New Castle graduate Malik Hooker is 'a natural'

| Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017, 11:21 p.m.
Colts safety and New Castle graduate Malik Hooker plays against the Lions during the first half of a preseason game Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017, in Indianapolis.
Colts safety and New Castle graduate Malik Hooker plays against the Lions during the first half of a preseason game Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017, in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts safety and New Castle graduate Malik Hooker had two offseason surgeries and spent seven excruciating months waiting to prove he could excel in the NFL.

After surgeries forced him to skip the league's annual scouting combine workouts, miss all of Indy's offseason work and see limited time during training camp, Hooker finally got his first chance to start hitting at full speed.

The Colts had no complaints.

“Malik is a natural. He is as advertised,” coach Chuck Pagano said. “He is going to be a factor. He's got a ton of range, and the ball skills and the instincts are there. We're really pleased to see him come up and the times that he was down in the box and the plays that he made in the open field. The tackling and physicality that he showed was impressive.”

Aside from injuries, the 6-foot-2, 212-pound rookie out of Ohio State is off to a good start.

Hooker missed practice again Tuesday with a shoulder injury. However, Pagano said he doesn't expect the injury to keep Hooker out long.

The book on Hooker coming out of college was that he was a playmaker who struggled at times with tackling. Hooker found the critiques to be confounding and motivating. He promised when given the all-clear, he would erase all doubts.

“I really don't pay attention to that stuff because I like to tackle. I put a lot of emphasis on that before I came to the NFL,” he said. “But when I got out there, I knew I was going to make the most of my opportunity.”

He did.

In Sunday's preseason opener against Detroit, Hooker finished with four tackles, the first coming on a smashing hit that knocked Lions running back Dwayne Washington out of bounds. Hooker also made a shoestring, touchdown-saving tackle of Washington later in the drive.

And on the Lions' first TD pass, the guy who returned three interceptions for scores in 2016 put himself in perfect position for his first pick as a pro. But rookie cornerback Quincy Wilson was unable to tip it in Hooker's direction.

Perhaps that's why Pagano compared Hooker to one of his former pupils, Baltimore Ravens star Ed Reed, on draft night.

It's what first-year general manager Chris Ballard anticipated when he gladly took Hooker after he slid out of the top 10.

“I thought Hooker was the best athlete in the draft, and he's got a unique skill set,” Ballard said in April. “He's got size. He's got speed. He's got great instincts and ball skills, and guys that can take away the football are hard to find. We think he can do that at this level.”

Still, even Hooker concedes he has a long way to go.

After spending so much time recovering from surgeries in January on his midsection and hip, he hurt his hamstring during rookie conditioning just six days before players reported for training camp. Pagano has been playing it safe with Hooker since then, essentially keeping him on a pitch-count at practice.

On Sunday, Hooker could tell he wasn't himself.

“The biggest thing with rust was getting out there and playing six or seven plays, I had to come out,” he said.

Given a little more time to practice before Indy's regular-season opener Sept. 10 against the Los Angeles Rams, Hooker believes he'll round into shape.

Hooker hopes it will help him pass the test against faster, stronger, cagier opponents and demonstrate he's ready to make a big impact on a defense that has traditionally wallowed in the bottom third of the league rankings.

“I feel like I've still got a lot of room for improvement,” Hooker said. “I'm still learning the tempo of the NFL. I'm still learning how to be a pro, so I definitely see a lot of room for improvement.”

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