ANDERSON, Ind. -- The Colts are not afraid to start a rookie offensive lineman.
Just last season, Jeff Linkenbach, an undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati, started in a Week 3 win at Denver and again in regular-season games against New England and San Diego and in the playoff loss to the New York Jets.
But they amounted to spot starts, created by injury situations.
The team’s top two draft picks, Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana, are running with the second team now. They need to be pillars of a revamped offensive line for the last, five-year act of Peyton Manning's career.
But how soon will they be ready to move from understudy to lead?
"It's not going to be easy, obviously it's going to take a pretty unique guy who can catch on quickly and both of them have obviously the capabilities of doing so,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “They are both very smart guys and guys that have also taken advantage of the break in time when we were so apart from one another and tried to learn as much as they possibly could. It takes a guy that's highly motivated. But it can be done. It's not an impossibility. But it's going to be difficult."
The Colts must be confident that Castonzo and Ijalana can protect Manning before they see the field. But let’s be honest, they aren’t trying to dislodge Tarik Glenn. Linkenbach is working as the starting left tackle, and he’s pretty raw himself. Veteran Ryan Diem took less money to remain with the team, but his game slipped significantly last year in his 10th season.
“You’ve got to go play against another team,” center Jeff Saturday said. “That’s the one thing you have to see. How they match up against each and every other end, what they look like when you are going through checks and different progressions and when you are going to audibles, and all those things that you really haven’t gotten into in the first week.
“Things are pretty basic right now. We’re beginning to add on to the foundation. But you haven’t seen any of those kind of reactions as of yet.”
At 6-foot-7 and 305 pounds, Castonzo matches Joe Reitz as the team’s tallest offensive lineman. At 317 pounds Ijalana is among the heaviest of the starting line candidates. The two bring the combination of size and athleticism the Colts haven’t had enough of at a high level in recent years with a largely patchwork line.
Indianapolis clearly has confidence that the two can contribute soon. They aren’t drafting projects in the first two rounds when Manning has only so many prime years left chasing another Super Bowl.
“Our young tackles are definitely good, have a lot of potential, but it’s going to take some learning still,” Freeney said. “Offensive linemen, you don’t become really good until your third or fourth year. That’s always been my opinion. Your first year, you’re just trying to get used to your stance and the system. Then you really come into who you are going to be.
“It’s kind of a needy position, you obviously drafted them for a reason. But I know they’re not going to be as good (this year) as they’re going to be ultimately.”
Castonzo said his first practice work against Freeney was beyond a nightmare.
“I saw Freeney my first day in pads and that was really ugly, it really was,” he said. “He beat me every time he lined up against me. I’ve gotten a lot better since then, but obviously I’ve still got a lot of work to do. It’s definitely awesome to go against those guys every day in practice …”
What would it take for Castonzo to start on opening day in Houston?
“It basically comes down to communication and technique,” he said. “Once I know exactly what I am doing with the communication, it just comes down to trusting your technique, doing what the coaches tell you to do. I think if I can get those two things down, then I will be ready to go.”