INDIANAPOLIS — Kemoko Turay’s rookie season has hit a snag.
For so long, the rookie out of Rutgers was like so many of the rest of the Colts’ rookie class, playing a key role on the defensive line and flashing the pass-rush ability that made him one of Chris Ballard’s four second-round picks in April.
But Turay’s playing time, and subsequently his impact, started to fall off some time around Thanksgiving. Active for nine of the first 10 games of his rookie season, Turay averaged 36.1 snaps.
Turay has averaged just 11.3 snaps in the four games since then, and his season hit a low point when he was active on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys but did not take a snap.
Injuries have played a factor. So has the return of fellow rookie Tyquan Lewis, who took over as the starter at right defensive end immediately after being activated off of injured reserve.
Put simply, though, the Indianapolis coaching staff needs to see more out of Turay on the practice field.
“If you hustle in practice and you rush the way you were supposed to rush, execute and have production in practice, we are obviously going to play those guys in the game,” Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “If you don’t have that, and you have situations where you are not executing the way we want to and at the standard we want to have, then you might not play as much.”
Turay’s talent is obvious. Freakishly long and athletic, blessed with speed and an excellent first step, Turay has four sacks and ranks second on the Colts with 12 quarterback hits, evidence of his raw ability to get to the quarterback.
But Turay has been battling a neck/shoulder injury and a hip injury since October, and he was forced to sit out the Colts’ first game against Jacksonville. Turay returned the next week and recorded a sack in 41 snaps against the Titans, but he wasn’t playing at full strength.
“It’s getting better,” Turay said. “I’m just trying to get right.”
The shoulder injury, in particular, has lingered. While Turay declined to offer details on the injury, the rookie did admit that the shoulder has good days and bad days. At times, he feels like it’s healed, and then the pain returns.
“I’m constantly staying on top of it, getting stronger, trying to maintain it, make sure you keep yourself from getting injured further,” Turay said. “As of right now, I’m feeling better, I’m feeling good.”
Lewis’ emergence also doesn’t necessarily mean Turay has to lose snaps. The other defensive lineman the Colts picked in the second round, Lewis has the versatility to play all over the line, and Indianapolis would like to get him more chances to rush from the interior. In the first game the two played together, Lewis started on the right side and took 50 snaps, but Turay still logged 41 plays against the Titans.
Turay’s snaps have largely gone to backup defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, a player the Colts claimed off of waivers from the Saints at the end of training camp. Muhammad has played 98 snaps in the last two games after rarely playing 20 on defense for most of the season.
To Turay’s credit, he’s heard the message the coaching staff has been telling him: Hard work can get you back in the lineup.
“You’ve got to do whatever you’ve got to do to keep your job,” Turay said. “The (coaching staff) didn’t see the guy I was the first week, so I’ve got to constantly keep getting in the training room and do whatever possible.”
Eberflus, for his part, opened the week by saying he was confident Turay would put in the work to earn back a spot on a surging Colts defense. The rookie has his eyes set on getting back to where he was in the first half of the season:
“I’ve been practicing, fighting through what I’m going through, but that ain’t going to stop me,” Turay said. “At the end of the day, I’ve got to make the coach want to play me. It’s up to them. I’m going to do what I can do to the best of my ability.”
Because when he’s playing to the best of his ability, Turay can be a force.