WESTFIELD, Ind. – There was an undeniable glimmer in his eyes, almost rookie-esque, and why not?
Looming was a return to practice – real practice – for the first time in more than 18 months.
Yes, questions will persist until Andrew Luck is truly back in control of the Indianapolis Colts, but the overriding concern vanishes Thursday afternoon when the heart and soul of the franchise trots onto the Grand Park Sports Campus practice field with his teammates for the first training camp session.
“I’m super-stoked about how I feel today,’’ Luck said Wednesday. “It’s the best I’ve felt in a long time.
“I’m so excited to be around the guys.’’
So much of Luck’s rehab has occurred away from his teammates, sometimes by himself. He participated to some degree the past couple of days with rookies who reported on Sunday.
“To be back and get to work with the guys and be around the guys and do individual (drills) the past couple of days and not think about my arm, sort of just let go of that governor, has been awesome and liberating and refreshing in a sense,’’ Luck said.
Luck’s availability for camp is the latest step in what has been a long rehab process following surgery in January 2017 to address a torn labrum in his right shoulder. It’s one that included his initial rehab being shut down last October.
The next step is limbering up his arm and taking his allotted reps in practice. The plan is for Luck to practice Thursday and Friday, take a scheduled day off Saturday, then return for Sunday’s work in full pads under the lights.
“When he practices,’’ coach Frank Reich said, “He’s full-go. There’s no restrictions.’’
Then comes Luck’s return to an actual game situation. Reich revealed the plan is to play the team’s $140 million quarterback in the Aug. 9 preseason opener at Seattle.
“Shoot, to me that’s a long, long way away,’’ Luck said with a shrug. “But I’m sure when it gets to that point, I’ll be juiced, ready to go.
“There will be certain things I’ll have to prove to myself that I’ll want to do on a football field against a different colored jersey.’’
That includes re-introducing himself to the fact the NFL is a collision sport. Quarterbacks wear red jerseys and are off limits to contact during practice. Like Peyton Manning before him, Luck always has indicated the importance of taking that first hit after an extended time away from the game.
“I might ask Big Al (Woods, defensive tackle) to do it one day in a practice when no one’s around,’’ Luck said.
Luck threw briefly and casually during the mid-June minicamp, then ramped things up over the past six weeks when he relocated his rehab to the West Coast. The only Colt who participated in his throwing sessions at Stanford was Chester Rogers.
Everything – training camp work, however much Luck plays in the four preseason games – is geared to prepare the team’s most indispensable for the Sept. 9 opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.
A factoid to keep in mind: since 2012, the Colts are 46-30 with three playoff appearances with Luck under center, and 10-16 with anyone else.
Woods is one of 69 players in camp who have yet to step on the field with Luck. Yet he understands Luck’s value. While with the Tennessee Titans from 2014-16, Woods was 0-5 against the Luck-led Colts.
“It means a lot, man,’’ Woods said of Luck’s return. “The guy busted his tail to come back. I’m excited.
“I’ve never played with the guy; I’ve played against him. He was always a menace to play against. He’s hell on wheels.’’
Offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo has been Luck’s teammate since Luck’s arrival as the first overall pick in the 2012 draft. He sees a different Luck this time around, considering all that Luck has been through.
“I can almost picture in my mind Liam Neesom in ‘Taken’ when he’s like ‘I’m a man with singular focus,’’’ Castzono said with a grin. “Andrew’s focus is so narrow now just on having the best season he possibly can.
“He’s definitely ready to go from a mental aspect.’’
Luck believes he’ll be as good as new, perhaps better. He’s insistent he’s learned from his mistakes. That means not skipping steps or accelerating his way through the tedious rehab process, but also adjusting his hell-bent style on the field.
“I think I’d be a fool not to, to be honest,’’ Luck said.
He’s been sacked 156 times in 70 regular-season starts and hit while throwing more than 400 times. Since 2012, the Colts have allowed a league-high 691 QB hits, and Luck assumed the blame on more than a few of those.
He first injured his shoulder week 3 of the 2015 season against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, and played his next 19 games with soreness and often only with the assistance of pain-killing injections.
“As I look back, if I sort of self-scout over the first part of my career, there are hits I could have avoided taking and there are times the ball could have been thrown away or another decision made that would have maybe spared me a hit here or there,’’ he said. “Now, do I regret not doing that? No. But will I learn from that? Absolutely. There are times and places . . . you put yourself out there.
“But I also have to understand how to be smart and how to protect myself and the team.’’
That will require some degree of reset on Luck’s part. Contributing to his success to this point has been a stubbornness to give up on a play in the pocket, or vacate the pocket and buy time with his mobility. Either option has exposed him to angry defenders.
“Goes against my style of play?’’ he asked aloud. “Maybe a little. But I don’t think I’ll be any worse for the wear because of taking that to heart. And yes, I have mentioned that before and I’ve just got to do it.
“At some point, talk is cheap. Go out and do it.’’
That, by the way, is an appropriate theme to Luck’s return for training camp.