DENVER • One spent his boyhood summers fixing the fencing around the family farm, the other scrubbed turkey troughs on one.

Broncos sophomores Courtland Sutton and Josey Jewell are no strangers to getting their hands dirty with some good ol’ fashioned hard work. Are they and their second-year buddies up to the challenge of rehabbing a franchise stuck in the mud?

“Being a leader means going out there and producing,” said Phillip Lindsay, the sophomore ringleader.

Digging the Broncos out of a hole is one down-and-dirty assignment. When the Broncos next week open training camp at UCHealth Training Center, the focus turns to new quarterback Joe Flacco, usual suspects Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr. and the health of 32-year-old wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

But it’s the sophomores who must do the heavy lifting: Sutton, who as a kid was charged with mending the family’s farm fencing after a bull tore it down; Jewell, who spent his youth mopping up turkey slop and harvesting crops in central Iowa; Lindsay, Bradley Chubb, Royce Freeman, Isaac Yiadom.

And let’s not forget tight end Troy Fumagalli and wideout DaeSean Hamilton. Sure looked like a promising core of players worth building on. But are the Broncos rookies of 2018 as good as advertised? Time to find out. One thing we’ve learned of Vic Fangio is how he appreciates the walk more than the talk. And the crop of second-year players has a personality that should gravitate to the old-school coach.

“He’s seen me, heard about me, but he has to trust me,” Lindsay said.

The Broncos handed over the reins to the young fellas in Week 11. Actually, that’s inaccurate: the young fellas demanded the reins in Week 11 when Lindsay (106 yards, two touchdowns), Chubb (sack), Freeman (touchdown) and Sutton (78 receiving yards) pulled a fast one on the Chargers in a 23-22 upset of the eventual AFC West co-champs.

Their emergence brought hope. But if they don’t back it up in the second go-round, not only are the Broncos doomed in 2019, the future dims, too.

“I feel a little more relaxed, definitely,” said Jewell, who is slotted as a starter after the exit of veteran linebacker Brandon Marshall. “Not in the relaxed sense of, ‘I’m here. I’ve arrived.’ But in the relaxed in the sense that, ‘Now just play football.’ Last year (I) was a little tense. I wasn’t sure of what to do coming in as a rookie. Definitely now I understand the role and what to do.”

By my count, the Broncos offense and defense could feature six starters in their first or second years in the NFL. That says as much about the no-shows in the previous draft classes as it does about Lindsay, Sutton, Jewell, Chubb, Noah Fant and Dalton Risner. But the Broncos can’t remove the stink of the Vance Joseph era and its 11-21 record without the blue-collar work ethic of the sophomore class. Seven rookies last season combined to make 55 starts — second-most in team history. Chubb started all 16 games, Jewell and Sutton nine apiece. Running backs Freeman and Lindsay had eight. Freeman, Lindsay, Hamilton and Sutton piled up 2,817 yards from scrimmage, the most by a rookie foursome in league history. Not bad, huh?

It proved to be too heavy of a workload. Chubb didn’t have a sack over the final three games. Lindsay had 100 rushing yards... over a span of three games... before a season-ending hand injury. Freeman eclipsed 4 yards per carry only once over his final nine games. Not good, huh?

“I think I’m a little bit more comfortable,” Sutton said during the team’s mini-camp. “Last year I really didn’t know what to expect coming into OTAs, coming into mini-camp and training camp. All I knew was go out there and play. But I really didn’t know how to really work on my technique, even in-between reps.”

Year 2, the kid gloves are off, leather work gloves are in. Time to dig in.

Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at paul.klee@gazette.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.

(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at paul.klee@gazette.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)

Sports columnist

Denver sports columnist for The Gazette

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