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Former hoops prospect Malik Hooker 'closest thing to Ed Reed'

INDIANAPOLIS -- Football wasn't something new Indianapolis Colts safety Malik Hooker really thought about while growing up in Pennsylvania. His focus was on basketball, where he was considered a Division I prospect. He didn't play high school football until his junior year.

That's when things took off for him.

Basketball eventually became an afterthought once schools like Ohio State started recruiting him for football.

Hooker transformed from a one-time basketball recruit, to leading the Big Ten in interceptions last season, to being compared to a young Ed Reed after becoming the Colts' first-round draft selection Thursday.

Hooker's pick was not something the Colts anticipated. They thought he would be long gone by the time they drafted at No. 15. But a surprising number of offensive players -- eight of the first 14 picks -- put Indianapolis in a position to snatch up Hooker.

"I'm not going to lie, about 10 days ago we thought, 'What if one these guys fall, would we be willing to pull the trigger and take him?'" Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. "We ended up bringing him in -- in case he falls."

Hooker, who became a full-time starter at Ohio State last season, has something the Colts needed last season: ball instincts. He returned three of his seven interceptions for touchdowns last season at Ohio State. The Colts didn't return any interceptions for a touchdown in 2016.

"He's an elite guy," coach Chuck Pagano said. "He's a center fielder. We know he's a ball hawk. He's a threat to score every time he gets his hands on the football."

It wasn't too difficult for Pagano to do his homework on Hooker. Ohio State's defensive coordinator is Greg Schiano. Pagano and Schiano were on the staff together at the University of Miami in the late 1990's.

"[Schiano] was quoted as saying, 'This is the closest thing to [former Hurricanes and Baltimore Raven safety] Ed Reed,'" Pagano said. "That stood out to me. He's got that rare range, instincts and can make plays on the football. An elite athlete. Again I can't emphasize that enough."

Hooker appreciated the praise.

"It's just like an honor to be compared to somebody like Ed Reed, a football legend, the best safety to ever player football. That's a blessing," he said. "I definitely take that as a compliment, but I wouldn't even dare put myself in that category."

Ballard doesn't want that kind of pressure put on Hooker so soon.

"Let's sloowwwwwwww down a little bit, pump the brakes," Ballard said. "We're talking about a [potential] Hall of Famer. Let's pump the brakes a little bit."

You can understand why Ballard said that after ESPN analyst Jon Gruden wasn't sold on the pick.

"I think this is a need pick," Gruden said on ESPN's NFL draft show. "He's had too many injuries, for me, and he's missed too many tackles. He's an inexperienced player. You watch Hooker play against Clemson, you've got to take better angles and make these open-field tackles. There's too many bad angles, too many missed tackles to be this high in the first round. That's my opinion. I know the Colts need a safety but these are one-on-one tackles you have to make at this level of football.

"I'm a little shocked that Hooker went this early, personally."

Hooker is not expected to be ready to participate until training camp following January surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip and sports hernias.

The Colts are fine with that. They're looking long term with Hooker. Ballard mentioned Hooker being "unique" a number of times during his media conference Thursday evening. Hooker is another piece in Ballard's attempt to revamp what has routinely been one of the NFL's worse defenses under Pagano. Hooker will compete with Darius Butler, T.J. Green and Clayton Geathers for playing time.

"I really thought coming in here that we needed to add defensive playmakers," Ballard said. "I thought Hooker was the best athlete in the draft and he's got a unique skill set. He has size, speed, great instincts and ball skills. And guys that can take away the football are hard to find. We think he can do that at this level. Is he a ready-made guy? He's going to need work."