WESTFIELD, Ind. – Drew Ogletree hustled up to the line with the Colts’ first-team offense, his eyes locked on Matt Ryan before his quarterback could scream, “Get set!” Then he ran a post route, noticed two linebackers split in different directions in a zone and knew the ball was coming his way.
He just didn’t know which side the ball would come to. It wound up on the right side, but he didn’t find out until he was airborne, spinning to a place just under the goalpost, where he stretched out his right arm and snared the ball out of the air for the score.
“I just threw my hand up and made a play,” Ogletree said.
The crowd at Grand Park let out some “oohs.” Then some checked their rosters to see who the heck No. 85 was. He doesn’t look like a rookie, not with those tree-trunk legs, the barrel chest and gangly arms, or the ability to take them so far off the ground.
The dimensions are genetic but also hardened by the road it took to get here. Just two years ago, he was rehabbing a knee as a wide receiver on a partial scholarship at the University of Findlay. He wanted to move to tight end, but Findlay didn’t even have a tight ends coach. So, at 230 pounds with a knee that wasn’t working, he started to feel out of place.
A FATHERHOOD IN FOOTBALL:How Colts TE Drew Ogletree and his son are chasing NFL dreams together
NFL RECORD PROJECTIONS:Will Colts seize AFC South crown in 2022?
After a transfer to Youngstown State, he embarked on the transformation. It spanned two football seasons in a single calendar year, thanks to COVID-19. He downed 12-egg breakfasts and challenged linemen to lifting battles. Younger players called him “Pops” and named him a team captain after just a few weeks together.
“You show up and you outwork people,” Youngstown State offensive coordinator Troy Rothenbuhler said. “Then everyone looks at you and goes, ‘This guy is here for a reason. He’s on a mission.’”
Rothenbuhler’s favorite story about Ogletree came on a practice play where he never touched the ball. His quarterback dropped back and went through his progressions, and Ogletree stopped mid-route to point out where the ball needed to go based on the coverages.
“Did he really just do that?” the coaches asked each other.
This brute blend of personality and play style made him a fit in the sixth round for the Colts, who had a need at tight end with Jack Doyle retiring and who had area scout Chad Henry tracking Ogletree since his days at Findlay. In training camp, it’s made him a fit for Ryan, who is running practices at hyper tempo, demanding players pick up the entire playbook in order to play at their fastest speeds.
It’s overwhelmed some rookies at times. Wide receiver Alec Pierce, offensive tackle Bernhard Raimann and tight end Jelani Woods, all drafted ahead of Ogletree this year, have hit their bumps of physical and mental mistakes.
So far, it’s been a clean camp for Ogletree, and Thursday became his day to show out. He played regularly with the first team as the second tight end option behind Mo Alie-Cox, and he made physical plays with consistent hands.
“You can see he’s making play after play,” offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said.
It’s created an upward trajectory in the battle for tight end reps against the second-round Woods and second-year Kylen Granson, both of whom have had uneven camps.
“When you make that move and you were a legitimate starting receiver, you understand leverages and you understand how to attack defenders,” Rothenbuhler said. “Then you move in and you’re like, ‘OK, now I have to learn how to block and how to run routes off of linebackers and some safeties.’”
When the pads come on, rookies are often exposed for a lack of strength and physical confidence. So far, that’s only playing into the hands of a 24-year-old rookie.
“Switching from receiver to tight end, I was always a big receiver,” Ogletree said. “I weighed around 225, 230. So I was always bigger than DBs, and now that I weight 260-plus, it’s a real advantage for me and disadvantage for them.
“I’ve got some speed, I’ve got the size and I can jump. You put them all together and you’ve got a pretty good player.”
His confidence is high right now, and it’s sure to come down once he experiences the rookie moments that time, opposing defenses and the bruising nature of a 17-game season will present. But it derives from the conversations he’s having after practice with his son, Andrew Jr., who lives with his mother on a military base in Maryland and at 7 years old is already one of the oldest kids on the Colts roster.
Andrew Jr. sent Drew a video recently of the new “Madden,” where he’s playing as his dad.
“He already bumped all my stats up to 99,” Ogletree said with a smirk. “I can’t complain.”
Ogletree grew up playing “Madden,” hoping to some day make the virtual reality real. As a rehabbing wide receiver at Findlay ,the dream still felt like a video game, but suddenly it’s here, and then he’s meeting Ryan and Nick Foles at breakfast and telling them all about how he likes to play with them in “Madden.”
So when he runs routes for them now, he’s chasing the 99 version he is in his son’s eyes. It isn’t actually feasible, especially for a rookie, but try telling that to a man who just flew through the end zone.