INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts, renowned for their pass catchers as well as the quarterbacks who have air-mailed them into the record books through the decades, remain deep in receiving riches. The shifty, speedy T.Y. Hilton is their go-to guy these days, and Reggie Wayne, a near-regal presence after 14 NFL seasons, still maintains a No. 87 jersey and exalted status in the dressing room.
“It has been a place for great receivers,’’ noted Donte Moncrief, the newest and potentially the most promising of the current receiving cast. “I mean, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and T.Y. . . . you’ve just got to come out and compete and work to be a good receiver, man, and they’ll throw you the ball a lot.’’
Moncrief, 21, is the youngest roster player on the Colts, who will carry their feisty underdog status into Gillette Stadium on Sunday to face the Patriots in the AFC Championship. The son of a longtime Mississippi preacher — Spencer Moncrief, Sr. is a pastor at the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Copiah County, Miss. — the former Ole Miss standout in recent weeks has emerged as a key contributor in the impressive, and some say surprising, Colts offense.
In playoff victories over Cincinnati and Denver, Andrew Luck, gaining a foothold as yet another legacy Colts quarterback, targeted Moncrief 11 times and connected on five of them, one for a 36-yard touchdown against the Bengals in the wild-card round.
In the two postseason games, Luck has connected with Moncrief for 86 yards, second among the receivers only to Hilton (175) and slightly better than fellow airmen Hakeem Nicks (83), Coby Fleener (67), and Dwayne Allen (60). The 36-year-old Wayne has totaled but one catch for 12 yards.
“Not only is he exceptionally talented,’’ said Fleener, the tight end who came here with Luck straight from Stanford, “but it’s hard for a rookie to make the strides he has made. Not only learning the playbook, but it’s also the long, grueling nature of an NFL season.
“I mean, rookies go straight from their college season to training for the NFL, to being in the NFL, and now to what amounts to two straight seasons, compared to college [in number of games].
“It is an amazing feat for him to mentally be where he’s at, let alone physically handle the toll.’’
Moncrief opted into the NFL Draft last year after only three years at Ole Miss, in part, he said, because his father was battling a lingering illness and he needed to support a newborn daughter. Maylana Moncrief will be 2 years old in July.
A slight dip in production his junior year, coupled with a bothersome penchant for dropping passes at key moments (read: end zone), factored in him slipping to the third round, 90th overall. A total of 13 other college wide receivers, including prized pick Sammy Watkins (Buffalo, No. 4 overall) were grabbed ahead of Moncrief.
“Just some things I had to work on — I know what I did,’’ said Moncrief, whose four-year entry deal totaled just under $2.5 million (including a $540,000 signing bonus). “I got a lot better at it and I am showing it now, so I am good.
“I’ll continue to get better and continue to show the world that I could have been a high draft pick. I’m happy to be where I’m at.’’
Moncrief is big (6 feet 2 inches, 221 pounds), fast, athletic, and possesses a protracted 77⅞ -inch wingspan, ideal for gathering in the few tosses that the laser-eyed Luck doesn’t deliver on a rope.
Though he wasn’t rated with the pedigreed likes of Watkins, Mike Evans (7/Tampa Bay), Odell Beckham Jr. (12/NY Giants), or Brandin Cooks (20/New Orleans) in the draft, Moncrief did post impressive metrics at the NFL Combine, including a 4.4 in the 40 (third among wide receivers), a 39½-inch vertical jump (third among receivers), and an 11-foot standing broad jump (third among all prospects and tops for WRs). No surprise, in high school he was a two-time state champion in the long jump.
“Smooth and big,’’ is how Luck described Moncrief earlier this year, in a story by the Indianapolis Star. “Great catching radius. You feel like you can put the ball up there and have a lot of confidence the guy will go up and make a play.’’
“He means a lot,’’ said Hilton. “He’s turned into a great wideout, running great routes, getting open for Andrew. He adds another element that we can use.’’
Hilton, smaller and trimmer (5-9/178), broke 1,000 yards this season with a career-high 1,345. He’s the burner, while Moncrief has size and rugged athleticism.
Moncrief’s breakout game came in Week 8, when Luck went to him a season-high 12 times, good for 7 catches, 113 yards, and his first career TD. He packaged up the game ball and sent it home to his father in Raleigh, Miss.
“He likes that,” said Moncrief. “He’s framed all my game balls. He’s been able to come to a few of our games, so that’s been a real blessing.’’
The money from turning pro, said Moncrief, has provided for his daughter and also enabled his mother, Nineta, to quit her job and take on the primary health-care role with Pastor Moncrief.
Meanwhile, Moncrief continues to strengthen his game, with special care paid to overcoming his one-time weakness of dropping passes. When practice ends each day, he asks Luck to toss him more passes. If not Luck, then he’ll find any spare hand.
The more passes, the better his hands, the more he can be a factor in the legacy of Colts receivers.
Follow Kevin Paul Dupont on Twitter @GlobeKPD.