How ‘The U’ shaped the Colts’ offseason

After the Texans released him, wide receiver Andre Johnson told the Colts’ website that the ensuing process felt like “being recruited all over again.” It turns out that his NFL courtship had the same result as his collegiate one. Johnson signed with the team of Chuck Pagano, the same person who recruited him to the University of Miami. The Colts’ ties to “The U” extend beyond head coach Pagano, who coached defensive backs and special teams at Miami from 1995 to 2000 and served as a graduate assistant in 1986, and Johnson, who played for the Hurricanes from 2000 to 2002. “We have a lot of history,” Johnson told “I just felt so comfortable.” That history includes Colts associate head coach Rob Chudzinski, the Miami offensive coordinator from 2001 to 2003 and the school’s tight end coach and graduate assistant prior to that. As soon as the Texans released Johnson, Frank Gore, who played at Miami from 2002 to 2004, called his former college teammate, asking where the receiver was going to sign. The duo then flew to Indianapolis on Colts owner Jim Irsay’s team plane. Gore signed with the Colts first — for three years and $12 million — while Johnson mulled over his decision. As part of his research into the team that coveted him, Johnson spoke to Reggie Wayne, who played 14 years for the Colts before getting released this offseason following an injury-plagued year. Despite being jettisoned by the team, Wayne praised the organization. Perhaps in part due to Wayne’s advice, Johnson signed with the Colts for three years and $21 million. It will mark the second time Johnson has replaced Wayne, who played for Miami from 1997 to 2000. His senior season — when he posted 755 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns — coincided with the freshman season of Johnson, who would go on to record 1,831 yards and 20 touchdowns over three years. Prior to signing with the Colts, Johnson also spoke to running back Edgerrin James. The Colts’ all-time leading rusher played at Miami from 1996 to 1998. Gore, one of James’ successors at the U, has rushed for 11,073 yards in 10 years with the 49ers, a comparable number to James, who rushed for 12,246 yards, including 9,226 yards during his seven years with Indianapolis. Upon seeing James’ Colts jersey at his new team’s facility, Gore flashed The U sign with his hands. Though Gore is proud of his time in Miami, another college — Stanford — played a major role in his signing with Indianapolis. Gore thrived in San Francisco, playing behind the run-first, power football design of head coach Jim Harbaugh, who coached Stanford from 2007 to 2010, and 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Stanford’s tight ends/offensive tackle coach from 2009 to 2010. Current Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, the Stanford wide receivers coach in 2010 and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2011 to 2012, worked with both. “That’s why I came here,” Gore said. Despite the obvious Miami and Stanford connections, Gore nearly signed with Philadelphia, where most experts had him going. “It was tough, man,” Gore said, “because they really wanted me.” Indianapolis, though, really needs Gore. Following their failed Trent Richardson acquisition, the Colts averaged just 3.9 rushing yards per carry to rank 25th in the NFL last year. The Colts’ lack of a bell cow back not only prevented Hamilton from capably running that same punishing Stanford offense, it also put more pressure on quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw for 16 interceptions, seven more than he did in 2013. Luck will now have the benefit of throwing to a deep crop of wide receivers, including Johnson, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief and Duron Carter. The 33-year-old Johnson is not as explosive as he once was. Last year he failed to post 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his career when he played at least 14 games. He also averaged just 11 yards per catch. He, however, remains an effective possession receiver who can go underneath and open up the deeper routes for the speedy Hilton and Moncrief. How much gas Gore has left in the tank is up for debate. He surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the fourth consecutive season last year, but before the 2015 regular season, he will turn 32, an age well past when most NFL running backs have washed up. But Gore, a five-time Pro Bowler who overcame tearing his ACL in back-to-back seasons at Miami, is used to defying the odds. If he matches his production with San Francisco, Indianapolis will go a long way toward shoring up its running game, one of its major weaknesses from last year. Another issue was a porous run defense that gave up 4.3 yards per carry, including allowing third-string Patriots back Jonas Gray to rush for 201 yards and four touchdowns during New England’s 42-20 victory in November. The Patriots have ended the Colts’ postseason the last two years. Perhaps Indianapolis, which has advanced further in the playoffs in each of the last three successive seasons, can narrow the gap between the teams even more by signing defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, who New England released this month. A college teammate of Gore and Johnson’s, Wilfork played for the Hurricanes from 2001 to 2003. Whether or not they sign Wilfork, the Colts hope their new members from the Sunshine State can take them to the promised land. Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

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