By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
TERRE HAUTE -- Colts safety Melvin Bullitt is speeding up the charts.
The man who came to training camp in 2007 as an undrafted free agent now finds himself working with Indianapolis' starting defense -- at least until Bob Sanders returns.
For the Texas A&M alum, it's a welcome change from past seasons.
"You come into the league with little respect, and now I'm gaining some," Bullitt said Tuesday. "I feel as long as I keep making plays, that will keep growing."
His penchant for big plays was the reason he earned a roster spot in 2007. It was also the reason Bullitt suddenly emerged as a playmaker in 2008 when he led the Colts with four interceptions, two of those clinching victories -- at Houston and at Pittsburgh.
Suddenly, Bullitt was becoming a part of the Colts' plans and coaches were looking for ways to keep him on the field.
The Texas native became the first option when Sanders was injured, and if Sanders played, Bullitt still lined up in the Colts' nickel and dime packages.
On another team, it may have been enough to win a starting job.
The problem in Indy: He's behind two Pro Bowl safeties, Sanders and Antoine Bethea, who both went to Hawaii in 2007. The man listed ahead of him on the depth chart is Sanders, the NFL's 2007 Defensive Player of the Year.
So Bullitt has been relegated to providing a third option, something the Colts desperately need given Sanders' injury history. But in coordinator Larry Coyer's new scheme, which features more movement and aggressiveness, Bullitt may become a bigger part of the defense and is a candidate for a breakout season.
"He obviously is playing with some veteran leadership this year," coach Jim Caldwell said. "He does a nice job in terms of getting the defense set and making the right calls. He's also an effective tackler and displays great effort."
That part of his game has been well taught. His father, Jerry, was a linebacker at Texas A&M and served as Bullitt's youth league coach.
What teammates see, though, is a man devoted to making the most of his opportunities.
"We have a lot of playmakers and we've got to find a way to get them on the field," Bethea said. "He's tackling, hustling, getting interceptions. We need that."
Bullitt is the latest of Bill Polian's free-agent finds.
Since taking over as team president in 1998, the list includes Jeff Saturday, a three-time Pro Bowl center; Ed Johnson, one of Indy's starting defensive tackles; Dominic Rhodes, now in Buffalo for his ninth NFL season; Colts defensive captain Gary Brackett; and now Bullitt, the temporary anchor in an injury-ravaged secondary.
Sanders has again started the season on the physically unable to perform list and has yet to practice since having offseason knee surgery. Bethea returned to practice Monday with a protective cast over his broken right hand. Cornerback Marlin Jackson sat out the first week of camp as he continued recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and is limited to one practice per day.
The latest woe came Tuesday morning when cornerback Kelvin Hayden left with a hamstring injury. Caldwell said he wasn't sure how serious Hayden's injury was or when Hayden might return.
None of the four played in Friday night's 13-3 preseason loss to Minnesota, and Bullitt joined them on the sidelines -- a preseason tradition usually reserved for Colts starters or injured players.
But Bullitt has come a long way since arriving in 2007 with little fanfare and then coming back in 2008 as the man best known for not selling his jersey number to Rhodes.
Instead, Bullitt has put his head down and persevered, even if it means taking one for the team.
"Everyone wants to be a starter, and, honestly, I'm in a great situation," he said. "I'm able to come in and make plays. It (training camp) has been a little different because the coaches have been a little tougher on me. I understand that. That's what happens when you're the one expected to make plays."
Notes: The Colts re-signed defensive end Josh Thomas on Tuesday. Thomas has played all five NFL seasons with the Colts, but did not sign with a team in free agency. To make room for Thomas, the Colts released running back Walter Mendenhall. ... Tight end Dallas Clark returned to practice Monday afternoon after sitting out last week with a concussion. ... Indy heads home from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology on Thursday.