WESTFIELD — Phillip Walker doesn’t feel like he’s preparing for the biggest game of his NFL career.
Sure, there’s some extra juice as the Indianapolis Colts quarterback prepares for Thursday’s preseason opener at the Buffalo Bills. But there’s no sense of pressure.
For the first time, Walker is playing in the same offensive system in consecutive seasons. He’s watched Andrew Luck and Jacoby Brissett run the scheme, and he realizes the key is not to force anything.
So when he steps into the huddle at New Era Stadium — perhaps as early as the first quarter — the former Temple star expects to be calm and collected.
“I’m just looking forward to getting out there, going out there and competing at a high level,” Walker said. “I feel more confident going into this preseason. I felt confident last year. Now, I’m feeling even more better than last year.”
There’s no question Walker again has made strides under center.
With Luck sidelined while he regains strength in his left calf, Walker has taken full advantage of his work with the second team. He’s made his share of big plays in the passing game, with second-year wide receiver Reece Fountain standing out as a popular target, and there’s reason to believe his game can go to another level once exhibition play begins.
“I really believe that Phillip Walker is a guy that you don’t see everything he can do at practice when it’s not live,” Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “He’s got a special ability to move around in the pocket and make plays and improvise on plays.”
Walker put up some impressive numbers last summer, completing 61.2 percent of his passes for 446 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. His 101.2 passer rating was the highest of the four quarterbacks on Indianapolis’ roster.
But much of that production came late in the second half, with few players who made an impact on the active roster for either team still on the field.
That will change against the Bills with Walker almost certain to enter the game before halftime.
Head coach Frank Reich estimated starter Jacoby Brissett will play “about a quarter,” and then Walker should take the field with a number of wide receivers in the thick of the battle for a spot on the 53-man roster.
“I’ve been talking to (the receivers) all week, letting them now that we’ve got to go out there and compete at a high level of play,” Walker said. “‘I need you guys to win on the outside,’ I’ve been telling them. We just gotta go out there, be consistent and just stay ready to go whenever the time is, like, our time to go.”
Walker was extremely proficient at Temple. He led the Owls to back-to-back bowl games in 2015 and 2016, and he ranks second all-time in the American Athletic Conference with 10,668 passing yards and 74 touchdowns.
But there are questions about his height (he’s listed at 5-foot-11) and his ability to claim a primary back-up role at the pro level.
The NFL game is shifting in that regard. Non-traditional quarterbacks — Baker Mayfield (6-1) and Kyler Murray (5-10) — have been drafted No. 1 overall in each of the past two seasons.
And pro offenses are embracing more and more of the wide-open college game.
That’s nowhere more evident than Arizona, where the Cardinals drafted Murray specifically to play in first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid-inspired attack this year.
Indianapolis won’t have nearly the collegiate feel of that offensive scheme, but there are plenty of read-option concepts built into the system. And Walker should significantly improve from his 10 carries and 29 rushing yards of a year ago.
At the very least, he’s excited about escaping the limitations of the practice field in that regard.
“A lot of things that they call sacks in practice, I don’t think they be sacks,” Walker said. “So just to go out there and compete and play, just to get my feet wet, just run around a little bit when I need to. Not forcing things. I’m gonna go out there and play at a high level, as high as I can.”
Sirianni doesn’t disagree on the sack argument.
He said quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady will always remind the offensive staff Walker was running the rep and might well have escaped the pocket. He was sacked just once in four preseason games last year.
“I’m excited to see him play,” Sirianni said. “They’re all big games for him. He’s got to put good tape out there that the entire league can see that we see every day. He needs to put the tape out there for the entire league to see and for us to see.”
Brissett is in the final year of his contract and likely will move on for a chance at a starting job elsewhere in 2020. So Walker has an opportunity to convince the Colts to keep him in their long-term plans.
If not, there are 31 other franchises with access to the same tape.
Even if the quarterback isn’t looking at the four-game preseason as an extended audition.
“That’s really not in the back of my mind,” Walker said. “Just (for) me, it’s just going out there and playing and competing at a high level. Just to go out there and do what I feel like I’ve been real comfortable doing.”