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Colts cornerback makes impact in turnaround season

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INDIANAPOLIS — In May, the Denver Broncos parted ways with a young cornerback familiar with their system, their city, their vision for the future.

In a straight-up exchange, Denver sent Cassius Vaughn to Indianapolis in a trade for Chris Gronkowski, a fullback and older brother of New England Patriots all-galaxy tight end Rob Gronkowski.

No telling what Gronkowski thought of the deal, but Vaughn said he couldn’t wait to be part of a Colts roster undergoing a major facelift on the heels of a disastrous 2-14 season.

“When I got traded I thought it was a great career opportunity for me,” said Vaughn, 25, whose arrival came two months after quarterback Peyton Manning signed with Denver and two days following tight end Dallas Clark signing with Tampa Bay.

“I didn’t worry about who was getting traded away or leaving. I just knew that when I got here I wanted to compete for a starting spot.”

Vaughn is one of many first-year Colts instrumental in the team’s somewhat astonishing 11-5 record during the regular season. Others include two other first-year corners in Darius Butler and Vontae Davis.

This trio blended with safeties Antoine Bethea and Tom Zbikowski to help Indianapolis finish the regular season ranked 21st in pass defense.

Despite not seeing the field the first three games of the 2012 season, Vaughn with 66 tackles, nine pass deflections and an interception for a touchdown has more than made up for lost minutes the past 13 games.

Here’s the kicker: He’s getting better and proved more and more valuable as the season wore on.

Vaughn was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 14 after his eight tackles and 3-yard pick-six in Indy’s 27-23 victory against Tennessee on Dec. 9. His 10 tackles, all solos, in Sunday’s 28-16 triumph against Houston were career highs on two fronts. The former University of Mississippi standout’s nine-tackle performance in the team’s thrilling 35-33 win at Detroit in Week 13 shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

It seems so long ago that Vaughn traded blue and orange for blue and white. However, his memories of walking into the Indianapolis locker room for the first time remain vivid.

“I was the new guy on the block. I came here with my head down and my eyes open,” Vaughn said, laughing. “But all of us here believed in our system, and we put the games together and made it happen.”

Two seasons in Denver netted Vaughn a total of 28 tackles and one interception. In this, his third NFL season, he’s emerged from the imposing shadow of 12-time Broncos Pro Bowl cornerback and future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey to establish a reputation and name for himself.

Now Vaughn can’t imagine playing anywhere else.

“This is home. I love being a Colt, love the city of Indianapolis, and love the team,” he said. “It’s like a fairy tale. We’re a family here, and you can feel it.”

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