By George Bremer The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — Former Army star Josh McNary’s college football career was all about finding the shortest and most efficient route to the quarterback possible.
The path since hasn’t been so straight forward.
The second-year Indianapolis Colts linebacker served two years as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Cavalry Regiment stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, before coming to the NFL. And even then it took an appearance at a regional combine in Dallas last spring to catch the league’s attention.
A hamstring injury during his second week in training camp slowed down McNary’s early progress and left him to open the regular season as part of the practice squad. It took eight weeks for West Point’s all-time sacks leader to get back onto the field and about nine more for him to be promoted to the active roster.
McNary made his NFL debut on Dec. 1 against Tennessee. And almost immediately was asked to move backward.
The Colts envisioned the former college defensive end as an inside linebacker, and the bulk of his playing time came in the team’s nickel package — requiring him to drop back in pass coverage for the first time in six years.
“I had a really short stint (in college) as a linebacker,” McNary said Wednesday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. “My freshman year, I was backing up. My sophomore year, the first three games before we had all these injuries and I had to get moved down to the d-line, I was doing a little bit of dropping back and stuff like that. But since that point, I’ve pretty much just been a stand-up d-lineman. No real coverage responsibilities. So all that stuff is new to me, and that’s really been like the biggest challenge.”
He proved to be a quick study, becoming adept at knocking receivers off their routes and watching his playing time steadily increase. McNary played just three snaps in his debut against the Titans, but he was on the field for 34 plays three weeks later at Kansas City.
The 6-foot, 251-pounder displayed natural instincts from his first day of training camp. And he used a tireless work ethic to catch up with his teammates. Once his knowledge of the defense was up to par, he was ready to contribute.
So much so that he was trusted to appear in both playoff games, making 11 combined tackles against the Chiefs and Patriots.
Fellow inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman — who played for three seasons in the Canadian Football League before becoming a starter in Indianapolis in 2012 — watched it all unfold with an experienced eye.
“He’s a guy that’s willing to do whatever it takes to get out there on the field,” Freeman said. “I know he was champing at the bit for a long time sitting on the sideline. I kinda know how that feels, just sitting there waiting on your opportunity. But whenever he could run out there, he would try to take full advantage of it.”
Now McNary’s taking full advantage of his offseason opportunity to improve.
He’s glad the coaching staff showed faith in him late last season, and he’s determined to prove it’s well-placed. To that end, he’s spending extra time in his playbook learning not only his specific duties on a given play but those of everyone around him.
That knowledge will allow him to think and react more quickly on the field and could lead to the next step in his development. In other words, McNary is moving forward once again.
“I think it’s even bigger the fact that I had gained some experience last year of playing and struggling,” he said. “That was like the crawl phase for me. That was really just like the introduction phase, and now I come back with some sort of foundation to build on.”