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Full speed ahead: A healthy Malik Hooker sets his sights on team success in 2019

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Colts safety Malik Hooker (29) watches one-on-one drills Saturday during training camp at Grand Park in Westfield.

WESTFIELD, Ind. — Malik Hooker raced toward the sideline and met Nyheim Hines shortly after the second-year running back began to pull in a pass. The pair of Indianapolis Colts teammates jousted very briefly before the football was jarred loose and Hooker claimed victory, performing a slashing gesture with both arms to signal an incompletion.

A few moments later, Hooker, a New Castle High graduate, flew toward the line of scrimmage and delivered a "thud" to shut down a run as the red-zone training camp drill continued.

Neither play was particularly remarkable in itself. But the fact the third-year safety was there to make them is noteworthy.

For the first time in his NFL career, Hooker has been a full participant in the Colts' offseason program. The nagging injuries that dogged him throughout last season are in the past, and he finally has full confidence in his knee after a year spent recovering from an ACL tear.

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Colts safety Malik Hooker directs the secondary Saturday during training camp at Grand Park in Westfield.

His burst is back to the level he demands it to be, and he rarely stops smiling before, during and after practices.

One word continued to come up during Hooker's recent interview session with the media: Happy.

He's never felt that emotion more as a pro.

"I'm feeling the best I've felt since I've been here," Hooker said. "So, right now, I can't complain about anything."

Last season was a grind for the 23-year-old. He started 14 regular-season games but rarely practiced for a full week. It all came to a head in the postseason when a foot injury sidelined him for the divisional playoff loss against the Kansas City Chiefs.

It bothered Hooker not to be there for his teammates, and they are at the center of every one of his goals for 2019.

Some players will throw out interception totals, tackle numbers or individual accolades as benchmarks for the coming season. It's a common practice, and those goals often come as part of team success.

Hooker is focused entirely on the team aspect.

Indianapolis is widely viewed as a championship contender in the AFC, and if the Colts can reach that lofty stratosphere, Hooker understands individual recognition will follow.

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Colts safety Malik Hooker runs out a drill Saturday during training camp at Grand Park in Westfield.

"I feel like if the team's winning, then personal goals come along with it," he said. "Obviously, you saw that last year. We made that roll, and (linebacker) Darius (Leonard) is the defensive (rookie) of the year. That comes along with team goals.

"AFC champions, playoffs and hopefully Super Bowl champions -- that's my main goal. I don't like focusing on what I want. I want to win. That's my main thing."

Hooker feels like the Colts are stacked to do just that.

The addition of four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Houston should help the team improve from 19th in the NFL in sacks a year ago. That could be a critical factor against a schedule that includes several of the league's top quarterbacks -- including a Week 1 date against Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers on Sept. 8.

Turnovers are another major emphasis for general manager Chris Ballard and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. With an offense expected to be among the league's most explosive units, extra possessions could make the task for opponents nearly impossible.

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Colts safety Malik Hooker (center) reads the play in a drill Saturday during training camp at Grand Park in Westfield.

Hooker had just two of Indianapolis' 15 interceptions a year ago -- a figure that ranked a respectable ninth in the NFL -- but he was rarely targeted and takes pride in affecting the game in other ways.

"I was giving a speech the other day on the sideline," he said. "I'm telling them, like, 'Coach, you want to know what's better than me getting an interception? Me doing my job and knowing that the d-line gets a sack-fumble and we return it for a touchdown.' That's how I look at it.

"If I'm doing my job, then that means somebody else is going to make a great play. That's all I care about -- somebody makes a play, and we get the ball back to the offense and we score."

Head coach Frank Reich has talked several times through the first two weeks of training camp about the need to be unselfish.

He's generally referring to the offense and its myriad skill-position weapons.

But the same is true on the other side of the ball.

There's heavy competition in the defensive secondary, and Ballard has purposely brought together a group with deep versatility. Third-year cornerback Quincy Wilson can play all five secondary positions in the nickel defense. Kenny Moore II -- perhaps the league's best slot defender entering his third season -- plays outside in the base defense before moving inside in sub packages.

Third-year cornerback Nate Hairston also has the versatility to move inside and out and has even seen a little time at safety as he battles for a spot on the 53-man roster.

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Colts safeties Malik Hooker (front) and George Odum (back) ready for the snap Saturday during training camp at Grand Park in Westfield.

The safeties around Hooker are interchangeable. Fellow starter Clayton Geathers is known for his ability to play in the box and bring physicality to the position, but Hooker said he's just as adept as a ballhawk in center field if need be.

Rising second-year defender George Odum is displaying a nose for the football in training camp, fourth-year standout Matthias Farley is opportunistic on defense and a major contributor on special teams and Hooker referred to rookie Khari Willis as "Clayton 2.0" because of his similarities to Geathers.

"To me, in the safety room, there is no starter," Hooker said. "There's guys that go out there, but the guys in the room can all go out there and start and get the job done like a starter."

That's part of what has Hooker so excited about this year's defense.

The Colts improved as the season went along in 2018, and they expect to build on that foundation in their second season under Eberflus.

Consistency is the key in conversations with both players and coaches. A year ago, the defense did its job most of the time. This fall, Hooker said, it must do its job all of the time.

And he expects the secondary to lead the way.

"This secondary's hungry," Hooker said. "There's a lot of guys that's trying to make their name for themself and go out here and do whatever they can to help this team win. So the sky's the limit for us in the secondary."

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