Learning process for Malik Hooker includes how to react to first career interception

courtesy Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Vontae Davis has been a constant voice in the ear of safety Malik Hooker and cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Nate Hairston.

He’s a veteran of nine seasons and 121 games, and one of the few holdovers for an Indianapolis Colts defense that was blown up during the offseason and is being rebuilt. They’re part of the present, but more than that, building blocks for that renovation project.

“I’ve been the leader on the back end, helping the young guys any way I can, and those guys listen to me,’’ Davis said. “I just give them all the insight I can so that they can improve week-in and week-out.’’

He talks, instructs, shows how it’s done on the field and in the classroom. The rookies listen, glean what they can from a two-time Pro Bowl selection.

But when it came time for Hooker to do what every defensive back strives for – celebrate a difference-making play – Davis realized one of his students needed further tutoring.

Late in the second quarter of Sunday’s game with the Arizona Cardinals, Hooker swept in from his centerfield position and intercepted a Carson Palmer floater intended for J.J. Nelson.

In his first career start, the Colts’ first-round pick notched his first interception. He headed up field for a 32-yard gain before being ushered out of bounds. Hooker bounced to his feet and headed to the Colts bench where he enjoyed the highlight with his teammates.

At some point, he lost the football. Shame on Hooker. But Davis had his back.

“He forgot the ball so I got on him about it being his first pick: ‘You’ve got to keep that ball,’’’ Davis said, flashing a wide smile. “So he went back and got it.’’

Actually, cornerback Rashaan Melvin retrieved the signature football and gave it to Hooker.

“I was like, ‘Malik, this is your first pick. Don’t ever leave your first ball,’’’ Davis said. “So that was cool. We made fun out of it.’’

Davis has 22 career interceptions. No. 1 came Oct. 4, 2009 when he was a rookie with the Miami Dolphins. Not only did he victimize Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards, he returned the interception 23 yards for a touchdown.

“It was a pick-6. I remember it like yesterday,’’ Davis said. “I knew it was an out route and I jumped underneath of it and just ran to the end zone.

“I’ll always remember my first pick.’’

The football, he added, is “at home somewhere. It’s in my archives.’’

Hooker also will find a place for the football from the Palmer pick.

“I’ve got a trophy room at the house I’m going to put it in,’’ he said. “You know, just write on it: First interception, Arizona Cardinals, the date and everything.’’

He conceded it was a rookie mistake to temporarily lose control of the memorable football.

“I was so excited that I caught it that I just wanted to celebrate with everybody,’’ he said. “One of the older vets picked up the ball and said, ‘You’re supposed to keep this.’ I’ve got it.

“Just hope there’s plenty more to come.’’

That’s the Colts’ hope as well. They took a safety in the first round for the first time since their relocation in 1984 because of Hooker’s difference-making skills. As a first-time starting safety at Ohio State last season, he generated seven interceptions and returned three for touchdowns.

When asked about his early impressions of Hooker, defensive coordinator Ted Monachino was direct.

“Malik is still ascending,’’ he said. “The sky’s the limit for him.’’

While Hooker is likely to draw much of the focus from the 2017 rookie class, there’s no denying the possible collective impact of the trio.

They’re young: Hooker and Wilson are 21, Hairston 23.

They’re perfect fits for Monachino’s scheme: aggressive, athletic, fearless.

They’re always looking to make a difference.

Hairston already has settled in as the nickel corner and contributed four tackles and one of the Colts’ four sacks against the Cardinals.

Wilson also made his first start against the Cardinals. It was a busy and impressive afternoon. He had tight coverage on Nelson on Hooker’s interception, denied Palmer’s deep post pass to Jaron Brown at the goal line – Hooker was on hand for double coverage – and broke up a third-and-5 attempt to Brown along the left sideline that he’d like another shot at.

“Definitely should have (intercepted it),’’ Wilson said. “Definitely next time.’’

Wilson experienced every DB’s worst moment in the fourth quarter when Palmer dialed up another deep post from the left – this time to Nelson – and came away with a 45-yard touchdown. It came despite good coverage from Wilson and safety Matthias Farley.

“You’re not going to make every play,’’ Wilson said. “They get paid, too.’’

Monachino didn’t blame the coverage. He credited the Cardinals.

“It was really a great throw and catch,’’ he said. “You couldn’t have been in better position. The finish? Could he have just reached his hand in there and gloved the ball down? Maybe, instead of swatting at it. That’s a technique error we can get cleaned up.

“But understanding the coverage and where he fit in the coverage, he was right on.’’

We’re still dealing with a small sample size, but the early returns are encouraging for Wilson, Hairston and Hooker.

“That’s what we try to bring to the table, which is getting out there and competing and being able to bring some type of change in the game for the defense and the team overall,’’ said Hooker. “That’s what we’ve talked about this week, just being able to have some type of impact.’’

The status of Davis and Wilson bears watching. Davis has missed the first two games with a groin injury, but returned to practice on a limited basis last Friday. He’s been limited Wednesday and Thursday, and there’s a chance he plays Sunday against Cleveland.

Davis’ return could coincide with Wilson missing the game. The second-round draft pick has yet to practice this week with an unspecified knee injury. Coach Chuck Pagano did not mention Wilson’s situation when addressing the team’s injury issues early in the week.

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