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BABY BILLS <br> ONE OF THE YOUNGEST SQUADS IN THE NFL GETS AN UP-CLOSE LOOK AT ADVERSITY

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - The RCA Dome will be loud this afternoon. It will be filled to the rafters with screaming fans. It will be a cozy comfort zone for the Indianapolis Colts.

It will be a new experience for many of the Buffalo Bills.

The first road game of the season looms as a bigger challenge today than for any Bills team in more than a dozen years.

The Bills will send the second-youngest team in the NFL out onto the turf for their AFC East battle against the heavily favored Colts.

The average age of the 53 players on the Bills' roster is 25.4 years, tied with Dallas for No. 2 behind Arizona, the league's youngest team with an average age of 25.2 years.

Just how composed the Bills are able to remain in one of the louder facilities in the league will be a key in determining their success.

"The big question you have is the youth on the team," said 12th-year veteran fullback Larry Centers. "You don't know how some of the young guys are going to react during pressure situations. It's important the young guys realize it's not going to be a perfect game all the time. You're going to have setbacks, but don't panic, keep your nose to the grindstone and above all play for each other."

The Bills came out composed and fired up in their home opener against New Orleans. But when bad things started to happen in the second half, the Bills couldn't come up with any big plays to stop the momentum from swinging the Saints' way.

The veteran Bills are hoping the team resists the temptation to start pressing if the Colts make some plays early. "I think that hits the nail right smack dab on the top of the head," Centers said. "It's like golf. You hit a bad shot. You're facing adversity. You have to know when to chip back out into the fairway and cut your losses. Bad things are going to happen in every football game. The big-time teams hit adversity in the mouth. You take it and use it to help you play better. As we continue to grow as a team, we'll get to understand that more and more."

The Bills were tied for the 10th-youngest team in the NFL last year with an average age of 26.2. Just three years ago they were tied for the sixth-oldest team with an average of 27.1 years.

The Bills are starting three rookies or first-year players - running back Travis Henry, right guard Corey Hulsey and right tackle Jonas Jennings.

That's the most first-year players who started a season opener for the Bills since 1979, when nose tackle Fred Smerlas, linebacker Jim Haslett and receiver Jerry Butler all started as rookies.

In addition, the Bills' defense will start three players today who have just one year (or less) in the NFL under their belts - defensive end Erik Flowers, strong safety Raion Hill and either Kenyatta Wright or Brandon Spoon at middle linebacker.

In contrast, the explosive Indianapolis Colts offense returns all 11 starters from last year. The Colts' defense, however, is quite young. Four defensive starters were drafted last year, three were drafted in '99 and one (safety Idrees Bashir) is a rookie. The Colts are tied for the fifth-youngest roster in the league this year at 25.9 years.

Bills coach Gregg Williams has no choice but to focus on the positive aspects of a young team.

"Enthusiasm is contagious and the opportunity to have a chance to fulfill a dream for some of these guys is contagious," Williams said. "Playing with great heart and effort every week is what we're going to be about. . . . These guys are really enthusiastic about playing in our style of play."

The Bills have only six players on the roster who are 30 years of age or older. Williams said he thinks there is enough veteran leadership in the locker room.

"I think there's key leadership on this team," he said. "Who says the rules are you have to have 10, 12, 14 (30-year-olds)? Sometimes leadership is by example first over what someone says. Guys that are playing the hardest and guys that are producing show leadership by example."

For what it's worth, the Bills' rookie starters have impressed nearly everyone in the locker room with their veteran-like demeanor.

"Jonas has kept his poise and composure," offensive line coach Ronnie Vinklarek says of his right tackle. "He doesn't get too high or too low."

"I'm probably as impressed with Travis Henry's attitude as I am his skills on the field," said Centers. "This is a guy who's been around this game. He realizes it's not always going to come up roses. Sometimes you have to roll your sleeves up and get dirty."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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