(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.) By MICHAEL MAROT AP Sports Writer Donnie Avery spent the past two seasons waiting for a chance to prove himself.
He's not sitting around any longer.
The five-year veteran tied his career-high with nine receptions in Indianapolis' 23-20 victory, and for the first time in three years, he's starting to look like his old speedy self.
''I think he is back,'' offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said Thursday. ''His speed is back, his strength is back, his confidence is building.''
For Avery, it's been a long journey from No. 1-rated college receiver to his re-emergence as a bona fide NFL starter.
His career got off to a promising start after St. Louis drafted him with the 33rd overall pick in the 2008 draft - the first receiver chosen that year. In his first two seasons, Avery caught 100 passes for 1,263 yards and seemed destined to become a key piece in the Rams' rebuilding project.
All that changed late in the first half of a 2010 preseason game against New England.
When rookie Sam Bradford threw a pass down the right sideline, Avery tried to make a jumping catch. Instead, he fell to the ground clutching his right knee. A few minutes later, he was taken off the field on a golf cart. The next day, the Rams confirmed their worst fear: Avery had torn the anterior cruciate ligament and would miss the rest of his season.
The former University of Houston star spent months rehabbing the knee, and then early in 2011, Avery, like other injured NFL players, had to fend for himself when the lockout hit. League rules barred him from working out at the team complex, mini-camps were canceled and he couldn't even get advice from the Rams' doctors.
''The lockout really hurt me because I didn't have any one-on-one with the trainer, so it took longer to recover,'' he said. ''Some days when you get frustrated, you have a trainer there to tell you right where you are and right where you need to be. I didn't.''
Avery didn't realize how far behind he was until training camp opened, and by then, it was too late.
He was cut just before the 2011 season began.
Four weeks later, Tennessee gave him a second chance, signing him as a free agent after losing Kenny Britt to a season-ending knee injury.
But Avery, learning a new offense, was still struggling. In eight games with the Titans, he caught only three passes for 45 yards and one touchdown, and never started a game before entering free agency.
Fortunately for Avery, the Colts needed veteran receivers and were willing to take a chance on him.
''Since he's gotten here, he's been 100 mph. He's completely healed,'' coach Chuck Pagano said. ''I've been around guys, coached guys that have come off of major knee surgeries. In Baltimore, I had a couple corners go down. It takes time; it takes more than a year. You may be back in a year but from a mental standpoint, confidence, running routes, driving, breaking, from a defensive back's perspective or a wide out's perspective. He's 100 percent.''
Avery looked good in training camp, until a bruised thigh kept him off the field for more than a week.
Since returning, though, Avery has looked more like the guy that had St. Louis raving after his first two years than the receiver still trying to get healthy over the last two years.
It's certainly made a difference. At Chicago, Avery caught three passes for 37 yards and followed that up with his first 100-yard game since his rookie season. He did that with a 20-yard catch to start the Colts' game-winning drive.
Through two weeks, he's caught 12 passes for 148 yards and one touchdown, enough to earn the trust of his new quarterback, Andrew Luck.
''He's very dynamic, fast, quick-twitch, can really stretch the field and get across the field fast on some crossing routes,'' Luck said. ''I'm glad to see that it's showing up in the games because he's been doing it in practice.''
For Avery, the start of the 2012 season couldn't have gone any better.
He's catching passes, making big plays and showing the league that he's back to his old ways.
''I'm just capitalizing on the opportunity,'' he said. ''Every year is different. All I can tell you is that I feel like the Donnie of 2012.''