INDIANAPOLIS – Xavier Rhodes has seen a lot during seven-plus seasons in the NFL.
But the Indianapolis Colts veteran cornerback just smiled, let out a brief laugh and nodded his head when asked about rookie safety Julian Blackmon on Tuesday.
The former Utah star wasn’t expected to make an impact until mid-October after tearing the ACL in his knee during the 2019 PAC-12 championship game. Blackmon obliterated those expectations.
He’ll make his third career start Sunday when the Colts (3-1) visit Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns (3-1).
“I’m happy for him coming in as a rookie and being able to start this early in the season,” Rhodes said. “I know it can be nerve-racking, but he’s handled it pretty good so far. He’s out there communicating with everyone. You can see it on film, and I can also see it on the field, too, also ’cause me and him communicate a lot, too. It’s going pretty well.
“He just needs to continue doing what he’s doing and trusting and believing in the calls and trust and believe in his players, and the sky’s the limit for him.”
Not everyone was a believer when Indianapolis drafted the injured safety in the third round this spring.
A cornerback for his first three years at Utah, Blackmon switched to safety for his senior year after a pair of starters graduated. He drew rave reviews for his leadership from teammates, and Colts general manager Chris Ballard and his staff saw an instinctive player with high upside.
Ballard felt like he got a steal with a player who had late first-, early second-round talent when healthy. Others strongly disagreed.
Pewter Report draft analyst Jon Ledyard sent out a critical tweet shortly after the pick.
“Colts took the worse (sic) Utah safety and he’s hurt,” it read.
Blackmon quote-tweeted the critique Monday with a simple comment: “All love man,” he wrote.
It’s reminiscent of the draft grades all-pro linebacker Darius Leonard has used as fuel since he was selected in the second round in 2018. Bleacher Report called Leonard the worst pick in the draft, and he went on to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The chip of Blackmon’s shoulder is less visible, but he’s already shown a hunger to improve. After recording his first interception last week against the Chicago Bears, the 22-year-old noted he missed a chance at another earlier in the game.
He’s drawn inspiration from his teammates and has worked hard to live up only to their expectations.
“Honestly, I just love playing football,” Blackmon said. “I just love being able to make plays, especially for this team. My teammates, they’re always telling me, ‘Hey, you can do this. We need you.’ (That) kind of thing.
“Kenny Moore pulled me aside at halftime (in Chicago) and told me that, and it kind of woke me up a little bit and made me want to make plays. So, at the end of the day, I think it’s just natural for me.”
It certainly looks that way.
Blackmon has a nose for the football and always seems to be in the middle of the action. He tipped a pass by Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins that was intercepted by fellow safety Khari Willis during his debut on Sept. 20, and his own first interception came off a tipped ball against the Bears.
There’s no official stat, but Blackmon might lead the league in separating intended receivers from the ball. He has five official pass defenses in his first three games, and the majority have come on bone-jarring hits after the pass initially made contact with the receiver’s hands.
It’s helped set a punishing tone for the league’s top-ranked defense, but Blackmon just wants to do his job.
As Rhodes’ comments suggest, he’s already well on his way to accomplishing that goal. And he’s just getting started.
“Obviously, Julian’s a special talent to be able to find the ball the way he does and make big hits and everything like that,” linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. said. “He’s a special player. He’s young, but we’re excited to have him.
“We appreciate him and all that he brings to the table.”
The Colts signed cornerback Christian Angulo to the practice squad Tuesday and released wide receiver Krishawn Hogan and tight end Ethan Wolf from the practice squad.
Angulo, an undrafted free agent out of Hampton, has spent time with the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers earlier this year.