Colts do quick homework to take risk on rookie LB E.J. Speed

Colts draft pick E.J. Speed led Tarleton State in tackles last season despite a suspension. Nate Bural/Tarleton Athletics

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis Colts rookie linebacker E.J. Speed knew the questions would be coming as he met with teams leading up to the NFL draft.

Speed didn't just have to prove himself on the football field after coming from Tarleton State University, a NCAA Division II school in Stephenville, Texas. He also had to prove himself off it.

Speed, who had Division I scholarship offers from the likes of Colorado, Colorado State and Oklahoma State coming out of high school in Fort Worth, Texas, was suspended last season for a game at Tarleton State after he was arrested and charged with two counts of organized criminal activity, which was later determined to be credit card fraud. The charges ended up being dismissed, but the questions still had to be asked by NFL scouts.

“I mean, selling myself to teams was based on the football field, but the legal issue was just something that me and a lot of guys learned from, and just distancing myself from guys who aren’t going in the same direction as me,” Speed said. “That’s pretty much it on the legal issue, so that wasn’t really a big deal.”

The Colts have put a premium on high-character players. That’s part of the reason why they hired former U.S. Army Green Beret Brian Decker to dig into the background of each of their potential players. The Colts had a tight bond inside the locker room last season.

Decker and Byron Lusby, the team’s Southwest area scout, had to do a cram session on Speed because he didn’t show up on their radar until about six weeks before the draft. So Decker and Lusby dug, dug and dug some more into the Speed’s background to see if he was a player worth taking a risk on.

“He made a mistake when he was younger,” Lusby said. “We go back and talk to his coaches. The current coaches, the [former] coaching staff. They all signed off. You just go back and vet all the sources that you can talk to. You talk to as many people as you can to get a feel for him. We brought him here and had dinner with him, talked to him and he was very open and honest about the incident. We felt good about it.”

Tarleton State University football coach Todd Whitten recalls Speed immediately taking ownership for his part in the incident last fall.

“He didn’t have 100 excuses other than he made a mistake,” Whitten said. “I thought that was an incredibly mature response. He was very remorseful because he felt like he let his teammates down, his family down, even though he was an extremely small player in whatever that was. Missing that football game broke his heart. To tell you the type of person is, I’ve been coaching for a long time and he could have played for anybody in the country at any level and he decided to stay close.”

Why did Speed pass up the Division I offers and choose Tarleton State, where the road to the NFL would be harder?


Speed’s adopted brother, Paul Snead, was diagnosed with cancer during Speed’s senior year in high school. He committed to Tarleton State thinking Snead would also go there so the two could be teammates.

“He ended up passing away in April [of his senior year], so that didn’t work out,” Speed said. “But in all, I was excited because I thought Tarleton was a great school with a great coaching staff, athletic directors and the family I talked to was just amazing. So it worked out.”

Despite his suspension, Speed led Tarleton State in tackles with 106, 12.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks and an interception last season. And as good as he was on the field, good enough to have the Colts select him in the fifth round of the draft, Speed’s character and family values also carried weight with Indianapolis.

“We do our work,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. “Kids make mistakes. They make mistakes. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad kids. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad people. Kids make mistakes. He made a mistake. The people he was hanging around -- we did our work. ... We comb -- our scout went in there and had a grade on him. He had a great workout. We were combing the numbers. He had an unbelievable workout. We started studying him more and we just see a guy that’s got really big upside as an inside backer.”

Speed knows he has little wiggle room when it comes to off-the-field matters. He said there will not be any “second stumbles” by him. The Colts envision him having the ability to play all three linebacker positions.

“The Colts organization is real big on family,” Speed said. “We had a meeting over being a family [at the start of rookie minicamp]. I feel like I can really lean on them and be open to how I feel about certain situations and I feel like they will help me grow.”