Heading into the Indianapolis Colts’ Week 8 matchup with the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, there wasn’t any reason to expect running back Jordan Wilkins to have the most productive game of his career.
In fact, Sunday’s game seemed like a good opportunity for Colts star rookie runner Jonathan Taylor to break out, but it was the veteran Wilkins who the team turned to on the ground in a 41-21 road triumph over the Lions (3-4).
Wilkins had a heavy impact from the jump, leading the Colts (5-2) with 20 carries for 89 yards — both single-game career highs — to go with his first touchdown of the season as a well as a two-point conversion run. Wilkins also added one 24-yard reception in the first quarter.
Taylor had 11 carries for 22 yards while Nyheim Hines added eight yards on five carries. Hines did account for two touchdowns on pass receptions.
While Taylor has received his share of reps throughout the season, Wilkins has been the low man on the Colts backfield totem pole, backing up Taylor, Hines, and initially Marlon Mack before the latter suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1.
As has become customary in Wilkins’ three-year career, whenever the Colts call on him, he answers and performs at a high level.
“Really it's just about waiting for my turn,” Wilkins said. “I don't think anybody on our team is a selfish-type player. We have a great backfield from the top to the bottom, so whenever my number's called, I just try to do the best I can to fill in for whoever's been in there and make plays. That's kinda how my career's been going so far. I never know when I'm gonna be in there, so I just gotta stay ready.”
Prior to Sunday, the most action that Wilkins has seen in 2020 were the nine carries he received in each of Weeks 2-4. Once he started getting his carries against Detroit and strung several good ones together, head coach Frank Reich knew they needed to keep going to Wilkins’ well.
“Jordan, you guys know how we feel about Jordan,” Reich said. “I guess he's complementary in one sense, in that sense that someone's gotta start and Jonathan's done that. We have a lot of confidence in Jordan. He played especially well today, so we kinda rode his hot hand a little bit. He just was seeing it well. Great balance, and some great runs.”
The inability of Taylor and Hines to get much going on the ground compared to Wilkins finding consistent success led to him getting the lion’s share of the looks through the rest of the contest.
“We struggled to run it early,” Reich said. “Obviously disappointed in that, but (we) stuck with it. We were afforded the opportunity to stick with it because of how the defense was playing.”
Producing at a high level in shorts spurts is what Wilkins has done since being drafted in the fifth round out of Ole Miss in 2018.
As a rookie, Wilkins was tied for second in the NFL in yards per carry at 5.6 after rushing for 336 yards and a touchdown on 60 carries. In 2019, he had the league’s highest yards-per-carry average at 6 after carrying the ball 51 times for 307 yards and two TDs.
Wilkins’ lack of playing time has never seemingly been about anything he’s doing wrong. Rather, it’s about what the other running backs offer. Still, the Colts know what they have in their reliable grinder.
“We love Jordan,” Reich said in September. “We loved him from day one. We think he is a really talented runner. Like you said, he’s never been the guy but I can just tell you that literally (GM) Chris (Ballard) and I have had so many conversations about him. Last year, he would’ve got a few opportunities when Marlon was hurt, but then he also got hurt. That’s when Jonathan Williams came in and stepped in and had a couple 100-yard games that Jordan missed out on that opportunity there. We’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”
It would be understandable for a player in Wilkins’ shoes to demand to be a bigger part of the offense. When asked if he ever wishes he’d get the ball more, Wilkins said it’s more important for the team to be successful.
“No, not really, because I try and stay away from that,” Wilkins said. “In the back of your mind sometimes you're thinking, 'Okay, I'm hot, keep going.' But no, I'm not the selfish type. I just want to make plays and help my team win. Whether it's blocking, if it's running, whatever it is, it doesn't really matter who's in, we just gotta get a 'W.' I don't really think about my name on the back of my jersey or anything. I'm unselfish, I just wanna help the team win.
“And that's for everybody in this locker room, so there is no shade or anything like, 'I need to be out there more.' Especially after a good game like today. Honestly, today I felt like there were plays I could still get better at. I had a decent game, but I'm not satisfied in my performance. I feel like I could still get better, and I think that's how everybody feels in this locker room, and that's the queue of a good team.”
Wilkins personifies the Colts’ mantra of preparing throughout the week to play like a starter, whether you’re at the top or bottom of the roster. He may not come close again this season to the numbers he put up against the Lions, but Wilkins isn’t thinking about that.
“We've got momentum,” he said. “We put in the work, day in and day out. We have a great group of guys that love working together, so the camaraderie between all of us is great. We just love to work. We think we're hitting our stride at the right time. We still haven't put together a whole 60-minute game yet, so we're working on doing that.”
That next opportunity for that 60-minute performance comes in a return to Lucas Oil Stadium next Sunday as the Colts host the Baltimore Ravens.
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(Jake Arthur has covered the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for nearly a decade and is a contributor for the team's official website, Colts.com. He’s on Twitter and Facebook @JakeArthurNFL, and his email is email@example.com.)