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Last updated: Wed. Jul. 23, 2014 - 11:56 am EDT

Wayne's return ranks as No.1 topic in Colts camp

Can he regain the form he has shown in decade of excellence?

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At some point today, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne will arrive for training camp at Anderson University, undoubtedly in memorable fashion.

Wayne landed in a helicopter last year and has shown up in an Army vehicle and a construction truck in recent years.

After missing half of last season with a knee injury, how will he arrive this time? Ambulance? Gurney? A treadmill mounted atop a Winnebago? Once he arrives, the real curiosity begins: Can Wayne return to his previous level of play?

There is nothing more interesting nor important to the Colts' 2014 prospects than the health of Wayne.

The Colts are prepared for Wayne's status no matter which way it turns, having added another potential No.1-caliber receiver in Hakeem Nicks alongside the third-year budding superstar T.Y. Hilton.

If Wayne returns to form, the offensive options for quarterback Andrew Luck will be so much more extensive than they were a year ago. In addition to Wayne, tight end Dwayne Allen and running backs Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw are back from injuries. So deep are the options, the release of LaVon Brazill after his latest run-in with substance use hardly lessens the competition for Luck's attention.

It was easy to take Wayne's greatness for granted before he went down and out last season. Prior to last year, Wayne had surpassed 1,000 yards receiving in eight of the previous nine seasons. His string of seven straight 1,000-yard seasons ended (40 yards short) when he was catching passes from the trio of Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky in 2011.

Wayne's presence as a stabilizing factor in the Colts offense under Luck was obvious with his absence. The offense was lost without him for several weeks, and never fully recovered.

Wayne has been a great player, no question, matching if not exceeding the standards set by Marvin Harrison. I don't hear a lot of “doubters,” in the aspect of reporters or fans speculating that Wayne won't return to his previous level of play.

Yet the fact remains that he will have to prove what he can do because the NFL, like all pro sports, is performance-driven. Playing wide receiver at an All-Pro level, as Wayne has done for the past decade, is an enormous challenge. You must have speed, precise route-running, awareness of the defense and reliable hands. Being fast alone won't cut it, any more than being a precise route runner will. It takes syncing all those skills into one fluid performance.

The main barrier is Wayne's age. He'll be 36 in November. Time waits for no man's legs, and it's even tougher for a man coming off knee surgery. That was a bad tear.

“The one that's been more motivating for me is just my teammates,” Wayne said last month. “I feel like I kind of left them hanging a little bit last year, so I want to be back out there with my teammates. We all crawled and scratched and did everything possible to go out there and play. Guys in this locker room, that's who I want to get back out there with.”

It'll be fascinating to see the role Wayne ends up playing. He probably expects to be the No.1 guy, and perhaps that's where he'll end up. But Nicks and Hilton are both much younger, and both appear hungry. Nicks has a one-year deal so he'll be intent on proving his worth for a future contract. Hilton is looking to take the next step from quality receiver to superstar.

Perhaps the wide receiver hierarchy will be more of a triple-headed monster.

It seems likely the Colts will limit Wayne's play during training camp and preseason games, not wanting to put any undue stress on his surgically repaired knee. He has vowed to bring boxing gloves to camp to challenge Colts coach Chuck Pagano for more playing time.

The Colts would be right to limit the stress on Wayne, though, to make sure he's fully healed and 100 percent (or nearly 100 percent) when the regular season hits. With outside linebacker Robert Mathis suspended for the first four games of the regular season, it'll be imperative the offense hits the season rolling. The Colts will likely have to score bunches of points early on.

There are plenty of areas of intrigue at training camp, from running back Trent Richardson's ability to increase his production to the fragile nature of the secondary, where Greg Toler and LaRon Landry need to show they can stay on the field.

But Wayne's ability to run and catch like he never went away is the sight Colts fans will be most anxious to see.

Colts Training Camp (Anderson University)

Open practices

Free to fans, but Anderson charges a fee for parking

July 24, 25, 26, 27. 28, 30: 1:50 to 4:25 p.m.

July 31: 6:20 to 8:55 p.m. (Night practice BBQ Bash)

Aug. 1, 2, 4: 1:50 to 4:25 p.m.

Aug. 5: 1:50 to 4 p.m.

Aug. 9, 10, 11, 12: 1:50 to 4:25 p.m.

Aug. 13: 10:20 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

rhayes@news-sentinel.com


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