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Lilja Believing In Himself

The call came early this off-season.  And if it wasn’t a life-changing event for Colts offensive guard Ryan Lilja, he said it certainly was a perspective-changing one.  The call was from Colts’ offensive line coach Howard Mudd.  The message? You’re a good player. A really, really good playerNot that Lilja didn’t already think he was good. He had played in the NFL three seasons, and started for a Super Bowl champion, but to hear it from Mudd – one of the league’s most-respected line coaches – meant something special.  And it gave him a confidence he said can extend into the future.

“That was huge,” Lilja said to the team website recently during the team’s summer-school sessions, which concluded last week at the team’s training facility in Indianapolis.  “It goes back to the whole confidence thing.  He just wanted to let me know how good a player he thought I was.  There was no other motive than that.  That really sank in a lot.  “After last year, the up-and-down season for me personally, it was really good to hear that.  That left a good taste in my mouth going into this off-season.  “I think just him being confident in me has helped me be confident in myself.”

The change in Lilja this off-season is noticeable and significant, Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said.  And an off-season conversation with his position coach isn’t the only reason.  Now, Dungy said, where once there was a player with talent, and a player important to the team’s offensive line, there now is a player who believes in his talent.  “I think even when he was playing well for us, when we felt like he was a difference-maker in the lineup, he didn’t necessarily feel that way, Dungy said. “Being out of the lineup a few times last year, then coming in and being able to play at that high level – playing against Baltimore, New England and Chicago; three really good defenses – he was able to say, ‘I played pretty well.’ ”

Lilja, who played collegiately at Kansas State, originally was signed by the Chiefs as a free agent after the 2004 NFL Draft.  He was released by the Chiefs shortly before the 2004 season, after which the Colts signed him off waivers.  Lilja started six of seven games for the Colts that season, then started all 16 games in 2005.  Then came 2006. He entered training camp as the starter, but missed preseason with a knee injury. He missed the first four games of the season, starting five games in late November and December before sustaining an injury to the other knee that kept him out of the regular-season finale and playoff opener against Kansas City.  Although the injuries cost Lilja time, he said the time wasn’t a total loss.

“When I was out, I really got to study everything in depth,” he said.  “I couldn’t play.  I couldn’t practice.  But I could watch every rep (repetition) and I could study every rep.  I felt like that was a huge boost for me mentally, just being able to watch those practices and being able to study game tape.  “I wasn’t physically exhausted, because I was just doing physical rehab on the knee, so I wasn’t out there practicing like these guys. I could just run and watch tapes and watch practices.  “I do think that helped me gain a complete grasp on the offensive system in general.”

Injuries weren’t the only thing that hurt his confidence in recent seasons, Lilja said.  The Colts’ offense is one of the most complex systems in the league, with quarterback Peyton Manning routinely making adjustments at the line of scrimmage.  Those adjustments mean changes in the blocking schemes, too, something Lilja said made for a difficult transition from college to the NFL.  “There’s a learning curve.  Some guys pick it up quicker than others.  It so happened it took me a few years to really get comfortable with it, but I feel like this is a good time to be clicking on all cylinders.”  Lilja said that’s because the offensive line has a chance to be as deep – and as effective – as it has been in several seasons.

“It’s an exciting time,” Lilja said.  “We’ve played good as a unit.  We just get better, I think, every year.  We’re all looking forward to getting better next year.  Having that continuity on the line really helps.”  And for the first time, Lilja said he is very confident that he can be a reason the Colts’ offensive line can continue to be one of the league’s best.  “I feel the confidence is starting to come more than it ever has since I’ve been here,” Lilja said. “That’s confidence that I know the offense, that I know the defenses we’re facing, that I know what techniques and how to block somebody, how Howard wants them blocked.  “It only took three years to figure all that out,” he added, laughing, “but it’s definitely comforting to know I can do those things.”

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