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Thursday, July 16, 2009
The cases for and against Ugoh


 
  John Rivera/Icon SMI
  The jury is still out on Colts left tackle Tony Ugoh.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

When I spent time with the Indianapolis Colts during their minicamp, one name was at the top of my list to investigate: Tony Ugoh.

I'd heard middling-to-bad reviews for the left tackle as I worked my way around the division in 2008. I came to view him as a question mark.

Drafting UConn running back Donald Brown will affect the Colts' ground game, as will an overall healthier offensive line. Battling a right knee issue last season, Ugoh was part of the injury brigade. But he was also on the bench for a while even when the team deemed him well enough to play. Better, more consistent play from Ugoh might prove to be a key to Indianapolis' season.

As I asked the Colts about him, much of what they said struck me as if we were chatting inside a courtroom, not a locker room.

And so, I present to you, the case against Ugoh, and the case for him.

Prosecution witness No. 1, an AFC personnel man, has been sworn in and pledged to give us his honest assessment (like other prosecution witnesses, he asked for and was granted anonymity in exchange for frankness):

"On the down side, he's not a real strong anchor guy, he can get pushed around. He never really has had a real nasty streak. He's athletic, he can move around, he can do the athletic things. The nasty, grinder, come-off-the-ball, smash-you-in-the-mouth kind of things -- those are the things he struggles on.

"He does have some trouble with his anchor. People can get under his pads and push him back. He's not a real physically strong guy. He lacks pop and explosion... I don't know if it's fair questioning the guy's heart. Because from what I saw coming out of college [Arkansas] and on this level, the guy plays with an effort. I just don't think that's him. The nastiness, some guys can do it, some guys have that naturally. He's a guy that tries to play the game without getting his uniform dirty.

"Now there are some positives to that: He's got great feet, he can redirect, he's got good arm length. He can do all of those things, he's like the basketball player playing left tackle. But he's not going to mash you and gut you. He fits what they do from an offensive line standpoint with the blocking scheme. They rarely if ever come off and just tee up and drive. They're zone blocking, they run a lot of stretch plays, those guys stay on their feet, just shield defensive linemen, the back just reads the hole and he sticks it up and cuts in. He fits.

"He couldn't play in Jacksonville or Tennessee. What they do in Indy, what they do in Houston, he can fit because of that athleticism."

Prosecution witness No. 2, a current NFL defensive lineman, same guidelines for you, sir:

"I think he's got all the tools. He's tall, athletic, he's got long arms. I don't know if he's as mentally tough as he probably needs to be. He can let up. I think he's probably been the best athlete his whole life on the teams he's been on and he's always been able to hang in there. But now I think he's got to come every play and I think he's had lapses at times. But he's young.

"You know he's going to be a good player because [longtime Colts' offensive line coach] Howard Mudd is a genius and he sees something there. I think that Coach Mudd doesn't make mistakes. They have to see something in him that means he's going to be their guy for a while.

"From my experience, you don't see Ugoh get beat much early in a game. But their style of offense is to hurry up and tire everybody out on the defense. If an end can stay fresh, I think it's Ugoh who can get worn down at the end of a game."

Prosecution witness No. 3, a second AFC personnel man, you get how this is working. Please proceed:

"I think his overall development has been slower than they wanted. It's just the inconsistency, the focus on the field and health stuff, as far as being able to play through things. Those are things we've seen on film in terms of watching him.

"Definitely, he a linear guy, a finesse guy. He tries to battle and he'll compete, but I think his lack of strength is what hurts him the most. You look at Tarik Glenn [whom Ugoh replaced as a rookie in 2007, a year ahead of schedule], he was one of those maulers and a bigger guy who could lock on to people and had some strength that way. But Ugoh is not in the same boat, I don't think."

"[Houston Texans defensive end] Mario Williams, his ability, his power, his strength have given Ugoh problems during the course of games. A healthy [Tennessee Titans end] Kyle Vanden Bosch is not the most explosive guy in terms of speed and quickness, but he is a very strong guy who can bend and play with leverage and is just constantly coming at you, and Ugoh can have problems with a guy like that. We've seen that on film before too. It's not that he can't move and can't slide with guys. But through the course of a game, his lack of power shows up in my opinion.

"I think he'll get better, but the thing that's also hurt him is injuries and being able to play through the season. I think that's where that lack of mental toughness has come in for him and they are hoping he'll get better."

You have our thanks, gentlemen, and are dismissed. Have a nice day.

Time for the defense.

Defense witness No. 1, Colts president Bill Polian. He selected Ugoh, a former star at Arkansas, in the second round in the 2007 draft.

"He was bothered by a pretty nagging knee all season and never really could get right. I think the offseason -- he had a little cleanup if I'm not mistaken -- will go well and will help greatly.

"Absolutely questioning his toughness is as unfair as could possibly be. First of all, as a general rule, anyone who questions a professional football player's toughness should come out here and just go through the warm-up. Let's start with that, because a normal person wouldn't make it through the warm-up. But then to question a professional football player's toughness is ludicrous. How do you make a team and not be tough? It's insane.

"As far as I am concerned, no, absolutely not... Specific to Tony Ugoh, there is absolutely no question there. Truthfully, I've never heard that before, I don't know who dreamed that one up."

Colts left guard Ryan Lilja, who's coming off a knee injury
that cost him all of 2008:

"There is no question he's got the toughness and the mentality. Nobody works harder than he does. Nobody is more focused out there than he is. He's got the mindset of a [Colts teammates] Jeff Saturday or a Ryan Diem, working on his craft day-in and day-out. This will be only what, Year 3 for him?

"First guy in, last guy out. He does all the little things right, he's physically gifted enough. I think it's all going to come together for him this year. I think if he can stay healthy -- once again that's the toughest thing - I think he's going to have a great year."

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, whose blindside is protected by Ugoh:

"I certainly could not question [his toughness]. Tony got thrown into the fire early as a rookie. He got drafted to learn for a year and the next thing you know he's playing right away.

"And besides [being a] quarterback, I'm a little biased, I think left tackle might be the second-toughest job to play as a rookie, just getting used to the speed, and it never does a lot for your confidence having to block Dwight Freeney every day in practice. That can be tough on a man's psyche.

"Tony is a great athlete, he's strong, he has good feet. He's worked hard in this offseason. Hopefully, we can keep him healthy. Obviously, he's important playing that left tackle spot, and we'll need him to have a big year this year. From what I've seen in this offseason, his work ethic has hopefully taken him in the right direction."

We thank you, and hope we may call again on you gentlemen.

There is compelling information here from both sides.

 
  George Gojkovich/Getty Images
  Consistent play from Ugoh might make or break the Colts' offensive line.
These outsiders don't necessary have the same feel for Ugoh's work weeks or what the Colts are asking him to do. But they are more dispassionate because they size players up for a living and have no agenda with regard to Ugoh. Granted anonymity in exchange for their assessments, they have provided us with candid observations.

The insiders are going to defend a draft pick/a teammate no matter what, though they might have allowed for questions about Ugoh's durability. Perhaps Manning's mention of Ugoh's work ethic helping him now suggests that it hasn't always.

Ugoh doesn't have to be Glenn, he doesn't have to be a mauler. He does have to be stronger, better and more consistent.

Before we conclude, a few words from the man in question:

Ugoh said he wasn't able to manage the knee injury he suffered early very well, that he fell behind and struggled to keep up. He wasn't able to straighten it and it affected his lateral movement, which has a bearing on everything he does. That cost him the always highly anticipated second-year jump. He had the right knee surgically cleaned up after the season.

"I'm expecting a big jump," he said of 2009. "The only thing I can do is keep working and trying to get better. ... I'm definitely ready to get back at it now that I'm healthy and we've got our guys back.

"I am not going to speak on anything anybody else says. The only thing I control is what I do each and every day and that's continue to work with the guys here. It really doesn't matter what anybody on the outside says or what anybody on the outside thinks. I definitely think we have a lot of guys that battle through a lot of things. And we have our advantages and we have our disadvantages and we all fight through that. I wouldn't criticize anybody's toughness."

Colleagues who have covered Ugoh from the time he was a rookie say that's not spin from him. He's a guy who goes about his business without paying much attention to any buzz, good or bad, there might be about him.

So...

We've heard from prosecution and defense witnesses, and the logical conclusion here would be a verdict. Instead, I'll cop out and say my plan is to return to my chambers, watch Ugoh in Year 3, continue to ask about him and put myself in a position to make a ruling in January.

That decision might be delayed until February, if Ugoh and the Colts play on the seventh of the month in Miami.