INDIANAPOLIS — It’s Bobby Okereke’s turn to make an impact.
That’s the way the Indianapolis Colts are looking at the rookie linebacker’s first career start Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
Okereke is likely to be the middle linebacker in Indianapolis’ 4-3 defense with regular starter Anthony Walker shifting over to the weak side. The move is necessary because all-pro linebacker Darius Leonard has not cleared the NFL’s concussion protocol and won’t be eligible to play.
Okereke saw spot duty in the first two weeks, playing 26 snaps mostly in relief of Walker. He had a pass deflection last week against Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota that very nearly was an interception.
Predictably, Okereke said his approach hasn’t changed in practice this week.
“Even in past weeks, my approach has been if there’s an injury, I’ve gotta go right in,” he said. “It’s kind of the same process. Prepare to play a lot and just be as prepared as possible.”
The Colts drafted the 22-year-old in the third round this spring and immediately were impressed with his football IQ, range and athleticism.
General manager Chris Ballard envisioned the long-armed linebacker chasing down mobile quarterbacks and having a knack for shaking the football loose during tackles.
Okereke pushed Walker at times during the preseason but ultimately lost a mild battle for the starting job.
Now, he’ll get the chance to fully display his skills in a regular season setting.
Head coach Frank Reich was asked how Okereke has looked this week in practice and didn’t hesitate with an answer.
“Like he needs more play time, really,” Reich said. “Our linebackers played well last week. They all did well, played well. Darius played well. The few snaps that Bobby was in, he looks good. He’ll obviously get some more time this week.”
Okereke likely will make the calls in the huddle, while Walker wears the sideline communicator in his helmet. It’s not a new role for Okereke, who often was the signal caller during his college days at Stanford.
He’s been quickly adjusting to life in the NFL and has gleaned one clear lesson from his first two games.
“The NFL’s competitive,” Okereke said. “You’ve seen the games we’ve played. They’re close games. They’re kind of going either way. A lot of good football played on both sides, and it just really comes down to execution.”
Third-string quarterback Chad Kelly was impressive during preseason play on and off the field, and Indianapolis made the decision Thursday to re-sign the 25-year-old to the practice squad.
Reich said it’s a well-deserved opportunity for a passer with obvious potential.
“Chad earned it,” Reich said. “I mean, he earned it. He earned it on and off the field. Really thought he practiced well, thought he played well in the preseason games. In meetings and every aspect of what it takes to be an NFL quarterback, I thought he checked every box. He deserved a chance to come back here to further develop. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Leonard and defensive end Jabaal Sheard (knee) were the only players ruled out for Sunday’s game against Atlanta.
Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (quad), running back Marlon Mack (calf) and running back Jonathan Williams (rib) were each listed as questionable. Hilton was a limited participant in practice throughout the week, and Mack missed sessions Wednesday and Thursday before returning on a limited basis Friday. Both are likely to play against the Falcons, however.
Cornerback Pierre Desir (knee) was a full participant Friday and appears to be cleared for Sunday’s game.
Punter Matt Bosher (right groin) is the only player out for Atlanta.
The Colts signed running back Darius Jackson to the practice squad Friday and released running back David Williams. Jackson has appeared in four games with the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers since 2016.