Movin’ on up

Keith Farner

Joe Jefferson was looking for a break.

The former Western star and Indianapolis Colts third-round draft pick had been in camp for less than a week, and he needed something to distinguish himself from the other rookies.

Jefferson got the opportunity he was looking for when All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning tried to get out of his own territory. On third down, Manning tossed a short pass, and Jefferson broke on it. He plucked it and scampered the other way, untouched, for a touchdown.

Jefferson didn’t celebrate much, shrugging it off as something that was supposed to happen.

“It’s all mental,” he said from his cell phone before practice last Thursday. “Either you’re going to make a play or you’re not. Everybody is talented, but you’ve just gotta be on top of your game.”

Jefferson is proving to his new team that he’s on top of his, and that he is a quick study. While at Western, Jefferson played primarily in zone coverage. But since signing a three-year, $1.4 million contract with the Colts this summer, he has been expected to learn man coverage.

His adept play in one-on-one has impressed the Colts’ coaching staff.

“He’s doing well,” Colts head coach Tony Dungy said Monday. “It’s an adjustment. He’s a very willing guy. He’s going to have to learn the speed of this level. We’re going to try to work him into the nickel defense and special teams and see how the season progresses.”

Right now, Jefferson is second on the depth chart at right cornerback and will try to make an impact on special teams. Wherever he plays, he has one thing in mind.

“I’m going to survive,” said Jefferson, the first player drafted last June from a Division I-AA school. “I’m going to adapt wherever I’m at. If you put me in the Sahara Desert, I’m going to survive.”

He and former Western teammate Mel Mitchell are adjusting to life in the NFL. Mitchell was selected in the fifth round by the New Orleans Saints. He also signed a three-year deal worth just over $1 million, including a $114,500 signing bonus.

Their selections marked the first time since 1990 that Western has had multiple players taken in the same draft.

Mitchell is listed third on New Orleans’ depth chart at safety, but neither Mitchell nor the Saints’ coaching staff could be reached for comment.

As for Jefferson, people who know are quite optimistic.

“I think he’s got his head on straight and looking long term,” Dungy said. “He’s a good young man, and I think he’s going to have a fine career.”

After watching Jefferson and Mitchell lead a secondary likely the best ever at Western, David Elson, the Toppers’ defensive coordinator, isn’t surprised at their professional success.

“You could just tell that (Jefferson’s) athleticism was going to help him get on the field early, and then when he got in here it was the same way all four years,” Elson said. “I thought Mel (would be drafted) for sure. Joseph had a little more developing to do. I thought both of them physically had the tools.”

They did just that for four years. Now they’re getting paid to keep doing it.

“All I’ve told (Jefferson) is to take good notes and improve every day,” Dungy said.

And then there’s the matter of coping with sudden wealth. Jefferson’s contract included a $516,000 signing bonus. But he’s staying grounded. No extravagant purchases. No rock-star lifestyle.

“I paid off all my father’s debt,” he confessed. “I took the average salary that my graduating class from Western made (about $35,000-$40,000) and that’s how much I’m living on. The bottom line is enjoying life. Coming from a small school to Western I never had anything. I’m just living a day-to-day life because it won’t be here forever.”

How long it is there – as with Mitchell – depends on him. But Jefferson has always made his own breaks. And if he continues to break on the ball, like that day not long ago against Manning, it’ll be around for a while.

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]