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Colts land Colts fan, difference maker in Ohio State safety Malik Hooker

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 31: Malik Hooker #24 of the Ohio State Buckeyes intercepts a pass intended for Hunter Renfrow #13 of the Clemson Tigers during the first half of the 2016 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 31, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The Indianapolis Colts got their man, and the man got his team.

Malik Hooker, a Colts fan for half his life despite growing up in smack dab in the middle of Pittsburgh Steelers territory, received the news Thursday evening when his phone came to life.

The first round of the NFL draft had meandered to the 15th overall selection and the Colts were on the clock.

Rrrrrinnggg!

“I was surprised. I didn’t expect that at all,’’ Hooker said in a conference call. “When I saw the Indianapolis (area code), I instantly got excited because the Colts used to be my favorite team growing up.’’

He talked to owner Jim Irsay and coach Chuck Pagano.

Again, a sense of euphoria swept over the ball-hawking safety out of Ohio State.

“I’ve been a Colts fan since Joseph Addai was the running back,’’ Hooker said.

Addai was the Colts’ first-round pick in 2006.

“That tells you how long it’s been,’’ Hooker said with a laugh. “That was just a guy I loved seeing going out there.’’

Hooker explained he gained his appreciation for the Colts by association. His cousin was a Colts fan, and passed it on.

“We used to always watch the game together,’’ he said. “I was like I watched the Colts so much I might as well just be a fan. Ever since then, that was the team I rooted for.’’

Chris Ballard, directing his first draft as the Colts’ rookie general manager, was informed he was adding a staunch supporter of the franchise.

“I didn’t know that,’’ he said. “That’s good.

“Fate.’’

Indeed.

It also was a historical moment. Hooker became the first safety taken by the Colts in the first round since their relocation in 1984.

While Hooker soon will be fitted with the uniform of his dreams, Ballard and the Colts are getting exactly the caliber of player they were seeking. A one-year starter for the Buckeyes, Hooker ranked seventh in the nation with seven interceptions last season. He led the nation by returning three for touchdowns.

“I really thought coming in here we needed to add defensive playmakers,’’ Ballard said. “I thought Hooker was the best athlete in the draft and he’s got a unique skill set. He’s got size, he’s got speed, he’s got great instincts and ball skills.

“Guys that can take away the football are hard to find. We think he can do that at this level.’’

Never was the Colts’ lack of difference-making talent on defense more evident than last season. They generated only 17 takeaways, tied for sixth-fewest in the NFL. Their eight interceptions tied a club record for fewest in a non-strike season.

That phase of the defense, coach Chuck Pagano insisted, “wasn’t good enough. You’ve got to be able to take the ball away. This kid can do that. A rare, rare talent.’’

The Colts, though, will have to be patient with Hooker. He underwent surgery in January to address hip/groin injuries and likely won’t be ready until training camp.

“I’m doing everything now, but I’m probably 85, 90 percent,’’ Hooker said. “By August I should definitely be ready to step on the field. It’s more being cautious and not setting myself back.’’

Hooker, 21, will miss the Colts’ rookie minicamp, veteran minicamp and 10-day organized team activities.

“You’d love to have him get every rep he possibly can,’’ Pagano said. “You’ve got to play.

“He’ll be fine. He’s one of those guys you stick him in centerfield: See ball, get ball.’’

Ballard has spent his first three months on the job remaking a Colts’ defense that a year ago ranked No. 31 in yards allowed and No. 22 in points. Of the 12 veteran free agents he’s signed, eight have added defensive talent to the roster.

That continued Thursday, and somewhat surprisingly. Ballard never expected Hooker to be available at 15.

Pressed on how the Colts had Hooker rated on their draft board, he hedged.

“He clearly stuck out at the top of the board,’’ Ballard said.

Where did he rank?

“He was really high,’’ he said, smiling.

Pagano’s pre-draft evaluation of Hooker included talking with Ohio State defensive coordinator and long-time friend Greg Schiano.

“He was quoted as saying (Hooker) is the closest thing to Ed Reed,’’ Pagano said, referring to the former Baltimore Ravens’ all-world safety. “That stood out to me.’’

Ballard winced when informed of the comparison.

“Let’s slow down,’’ he said. “We’re talking about a Hall of Famer. Let’s pump the brakes a little bit.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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