INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Coming out of high school, Malik Hooker could have played Division I basketball. He led New Castle High to a state title as a senior in addition to being an all-state pick as a defensive back (in only his second year of football). Hooker made the right call heading to Ohio State to play safety. Now the Lawrence County native will head to the NFL playing for the Indianapolis Colts. The team tapped Hooker in a a first-round draft pick.
New general manager Chris Ballard continued Indy’s offseason defensive overhaul Thursday by taking the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Ohio State safety at No. 15 overall. Hooker brings a ball-hawking, big-hitting style to a defense desperately seeking playmakers and drew a comparison to a player coach Chuck Pagano knows well.
“When we started looking at this guy, and I started looking at this guy, (Ohio State defensive coordinator) Greg Schiano and I had long discussions about all their guys,” coach Chuck Pagano said, referring to an old friend from their days together on the University of Miami staff. “He went on to say this is the closest thing he’s seen to Ed Reed. … So that stood out to me.”
If Hooker comes anywhere close duplicating Reed’s numbers, the Colts might have the steal of the draft.
Hooker didn’t play high school football until his junior year and started just one season for the Buckeyes, was expected to be taken in the top 10 after returning three of his seven interceptions for touchdowns last season. But with three teams trading up to grab quarterbacks, some of the top-rated defenders started sliding, including Hooker.
“It’s just like an honor to me,” Hooker said when asked about the comparison. “Ed Reed is a football legend, the best safety to ever play football, so I wouldn’t put myself in that category.”
Not yet at least.
And Hooker’s progression could be delayed initially, too, after undergoing surgery in late January to repair
two injuries suffered last season — a torn labrum and a hernia.
Hooker said he’s about 85 percent to 90 percent right now and expects to be ready by August. Ballard hopes he will be ready then.
Neither the injuries nor the apparent depth Indy had at safety could dissuade Ballard from selecting Hooker over two Alabama players who could have filled bigger needs — defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, who went at No. 18, or linebacker Reuben Foster, who went to San Francisco at No. 31.
“I thought Hooker was the best athlete in the draft,” Ballard said. “He’s got size, he’s got speed, he’s got great instincts and guys that get their hands on balls are hard to find.”
At his introductory news conference, Ballard promised to make fixing Indy’s long underperforming defense a top priority. He has since signed eight veteran free agents, let a handful of Colts veterans walk away and now has the second-best safety in the draft. LSU’s Jamal Adams went sixth overall to the New York Jets.
Hooker joins crowded secondary that already includes two young safeties — T.J. Green, a second-round pick last year, and Clayton Geathers, a fourth-round pick in 2015 — and veteran Darius Butler, who is expected to move from nickel package cornerback to full-time safety.
Where exactly Hooker fits in next season might not be clear until he actually makes it onto the field.
Until then, Ballard wants everybody to stop making comparisons to Reed.
“Let’s slow down,” Ballard said. “We’re talking about a (future) Hall of Famer, so let’s pump the brakes a bit.”
Hooker is the highest draft pick by the Colts since Andrew Luck went No. 1 in 2012 and is the highest defensive player selected by the Colts since Dwight Freeney went at No. 11 in 2002.