INDIANAPOLIS – The blinders are firmly in place for Ben Banogu.
He’s staring straight ahead, totally focused on what’s to come and not the least bit distracted by two seasons that have brought into question the Indianapolis Colts’ decision to invest a 2019 second-round draft pick – 49th overall – in an athletic, disruptive prospect out of TCU.
The past? It’s in the past.
“I’m not too worried with the stuff that happened last year,’’ Banogu said Monday in a Zoom conference call. “This year is a new year and I’m ready to work with my guys.’’
Not surprisingly, Banogu was pressed on last season; in fact his first two seasons with the Colts.
For a quick and discouraging recap of 2020, consider he was a healthy scratch in eight of the last 10 games, including the first-round playoff loss at Buffalo. He was on the field for just 10% of the defensive snaps during the regular-season – down from 26% as a rookie – and was given just eight total snaps by defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus over the final 10 games.
Part of the problem was Banogu’s inability to contribute much on special teams. But the fact the coaching staff kept a young pass rusher from even being a part of the d-line rotation on game day was troubling.
Banogu’s two-year bottom line: 371 snaps in 25 games, 15 tackles, three tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, and one forced fumble.
It goes without saying he’s entering a pivotal third season, but general manger Chris Ballard said it anyway.
“This is a big year for Ben,’’ he said. “Ben’s got to come on. We think he’s got the talent to do it, but he’s got to come on.’’
Ballard’s roster-building is predicated on strength up front: offensive line, defensive line.
The o-line has been addressed and is one of the NFL’s best.
The d-line took a couple of hits in the offseason with the relocation of Denico Autry to Tennessee and the decision not to re-sign Justin Houston, but Ballard compensated by using his first two picks in the April NFL Draft on ends Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo.
“Look, I’m not stupid,’’ Ballard said. “I know what it told the room: ‘C’mon, let’s go.’
“We’ll keep as many as we can and if they’re good players and they’re producing, we’ll keep them.’’
Prior to the draft, Ballard re-signed Al-Quadin Muhammad and added veteran free agent end Isaac Rochell. It’s a crowded position with the two rookies, Kemoko Turay, Tyquan Lewis, Banogu, Muhammad, Rochell and Kameron Cline.
Ballard remains hopeful Banogu will experience a similar leap from year 2 to year 3 as did Lewis. Often, he explained, it takes a player a year or two to come to grips with what it takes to perform at the highest level of the sport.
Injuries and a lack of confidence contributed to Lewis, a 2018 second-round pick, enduring a slow start to his NFL career. In his first two seasons, he appeared in just 18 of 32 games with six starts, and managed only 18 tackles and 2 sacks.
Then, year 3. Lewis appeared in all 17 games, including the playoffs, and was a constant force with 27 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 4 sacks and seven quarterback hits.
“I dealt with a lot of adversity coming out,’’ Lewis said. “It was a lot of frustration with the injuries – ankle, toe, knee and everything. All those injuries held me back. You can see the frustration oozing out.
“I talk to Ben a lot. Even though his path is a little different, Ben’s a great player.’’
Lewis’ advice is basic. One of the overriding reasons he enjoyed a major jump in year 3 was an offseason approach that got him comfortable being himself and addressed his confidence.
“I just tell him to stay the course,’’ Lewis said. “Each and every week, just stay the course. You can’t be no one else but Ben. You’ve got to be yourself.’’
The team believes one area holding Banogu back is confidence. That’s been difficult for him to work on with the lack of playing time, which seemingly is a reflection of his practice routine. Eberflus runs a strict meritocracy: players earn snaps on Sunday by how they practice during the week.
“It’s all about trusting your ability,’’ Lewis said. “You can only be yourself, man. Yourself is good enough. You’ve got to believe it.
“You can’t go out there and be a super hero. You’ve just got to be yourself because who you are is good enough.’’
Banogu has been doing his part this offseason.
Before joining his teammates for the two-week offseason work at the Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Center, he worked out with All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and tackle Taylor Stallworth.
“It was good. It wasn’t anything crazy,’’ Banogu said. “DeForest and I are together on the practice field here and it was easy for us to work together in the offseason.
“Just working on our craft, fine-tuning things, trying to learn new things about our game. Me, Buck and Tay had a good time. We felt like we got better.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.