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Colts/NFL

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Hilton shares the Colts’ rookie record for 100-yard games (3). He has 33 catches for 488 yards.

Hilton at home with Colts

Rookie becoming big-play threat as receiver, returner

Associated Press photos
Last week against Buffalo, Colts’ T.Y. Hilton caught a touchdown pass and scored on a punt return.

– As the NFL game slows down for him, T.Y. Hilton is playing faster. As opponents pay more attention to Reggie Wayne, he is emerging as a key contributor. And as the smallest player on the Colts’ roster, Hilton is making a huge impact.

The 5-foot-9, 183-pound rookie out of Florida International couldn’t dream of a better way to start a career.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Hilton said Wednesday. “I love changing games, bringing another dimension to the game. It’s all fun.”

Hilton is no ordinary rookie and in no ordinary learning environment.

Interim coach Bruce Arians has a history of waiting patiently for new receivers to get acclimated to facing bigger, faster defenders before turning them loose and raising the expectations. See Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh.

Hilton also didn’t come from a big school with a gaudy draft grade or the burden of living up to the reputation of other higher-profile receivers.

He was able to get a crash course in film study and practice habits from Pro Bowler Wayne, who spends his offseasons working out in Hilton’s hometown of Miami, and with veterans such as Wayne and Donnie Avery already on board, Hilton didn’t have to emerge as a go-to receiver immediately.

Instead, the fourth player selected in the Colts’ rookie class was able to blend in behind the first three picks – quarterback Andrew Luck and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen – and learn things on his own timetable.

Now the Colts (7-4) are reaping the rewards.

“You can just tell that he’s playing faster every week, more comfortable,” Luck said. “I’m glad to start seeing it pay dividends and hopefully he’ll continue to play fast and continue to do decent things.”

In this rookie class, record-breaking chases have become the norm.

Luck is still on pace to break the NFL’s rookie single-season marks for pass attempts, completions and yardage. With a win today in Detroit, Luck also would break Sam Bradford’s rookie record for wins by a No. 1 overall pick (seven).

Allen is closing in on the franchise’s rookie receptions record for tight ends.

Hilton, too, is making history. He already shares the Colts’ rookie record for 100-yard games (three) with Andre Rison, and last weekend, Hilton became the first player in franchise history to catch a touchdown pass and score on a punt return in the same game.

The second-best rookie in Indianapolis was so impressive against Buffalo, he was named this week’s AFC special teams player of the week.

“He’s extremely explosive. I think I’ll go back to the Louisville game (last year) where he just blew off the tape catching balls down the middle, catching short passes, making guys miss,” Arians said. “Punt returns, kick returns, you knew that in the open field, he was extremely dangerous, not just top end speed but elusiveness to go with it, and he had solid hands. More than all those things, he’s got a great work ethic and humility about him. He’s going to be a great pro.”

Despite being the 13th receiver taken in April’s draft, only two rookie receivers have topped Hilton’s numbers (33 receptions, 488 yards). And Buffalo coach Chan Gailey acknowledged that it was Hilton – not the usual suspects like Luck or Wayne– who changed last Sunday’s game.

It may only be the start.

“Thanksgiving to Christmas is when you want your young wide receivers to step in and have a major role,” Arians said.

“LaVon (Brazill) has started to increase his productivity. T.Y. has had more opportunities and, obviously, now is becoming a major factor in our offense but also as a punt returner. We always thought it was there, but you’ve just got to watch him grow.”

And Hilton intends to deliver on that promise.

“I still have a lot of room to grow,” Hilton said. “This is the turning point of the season, where rookies normally hit that rookie wall. But I’m feeling good and the game is slowing down for me right now.”

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