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Colts face challenge of repeating success

– Wherever this goes now begins here, between Satele 64 and Ballard 33 in the Colts’ locker room. It begins in a locker stacked high with binders and iPads. It begins, notably, in a space overrun with four or five different kinds of athletic shoes.

And if that gives Andrew Luck’s locker the feel of a teenager’s closet … well, congrats. You’ve just hit on part of his essence.

“I think Andrew’s just enjoying it like a kid,” says Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, who knows a thing or two about elite quarterbacks. “It’s a kid sport to him; ‘I’m just having a good time, I’m going to run around and throw this ball around.’ ”

And good things will follow. Luck ran and threw the ball around last year, and when he was done the Colts – 2-14 the year before – were 11-5 and in the playoffs. And Luck, the kid playing a kid’s game, had thrown for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns and led the Colts to seven come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter or overtime as a rookie.

Now it’s Year 2, and he’s become the defining figure of the franchise.

How he goes, the Colts will go.

Everyone seems to think that’s up, not down.

In Year 2, Luck returns calmer and more poised and indisputably more in command (“He’s taken it to another level,” says one of his tight ends, Dwayne Allen), and he’s got some new weapons – running back Ahmad Bradshaw and wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey chief among them – and a new offense he’s as comfortable with as one of those shoes in his locker.

Pep Hamilton, who was Luck’s offensive coordinator at Stanford, is the new offensive coordinator, and so it’s like old times again.

“All the pieces are here in place and guys are healthy and ready to go,” says outside linebacker Robert Mathis, the 11-year veteran.

“It’s time to have some fun with it.”

But if you think that means 11-5 goes to 12-4 or 13-3 this fall … not so fast.

Those seven game-winning drives, to start with, are a piece of serendipity not likely to be duplicated, considering the NFL hadn’t seen the likes of it since the 1970 merger.

And no one’s coming to Indianapolis this year back on their heels, as they might have last year against a club that won just two games in 2011 and was starting a rookie quarterback.

And an offensive line that got Luck sacked 41 times last season has been significantly rewired – which means it could conceivably be better, but it could also be worse.

The same might be said for the Colts in general.

The schedule, for one thing, does them no favors, particularly in the eight weeks or so after Week 1. They get the tattered Raiders to start, but the next week it’s Miami and then it’s out to San Francisco, and, a couple of weeks after that, Seattle’s in. Then it’s on to San Diego, where nothing has ever come easy, then back home for the Prodigal Son Bowl against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

Throw in two games with Houston, and 12-4 or 13-3 suddenly looks like 9-7. Or 10-6.

Me, I’ll take the latter. The Colts will be a better team, but they’ll have a worse record.

“I’m worried about us,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said when asked how he prepares his team for the Raiders.

“The enemy is always in your own camp. There’s nothing worse than reading your own press clippings, thinking about what you did a year ago because nobody really cares what happened a year ago. This is about what have you done for me lately.”

And that starts today.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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