WESTFIELD — It’s already become a common sight at Grand Park Sports Complex.
Early in one-on-one drills, an Indianapolis Colts wide receiver will beat rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin with a move he’s rarely seen before. Defensive backs coach Jonathan Gannon will bark out instructions on the placement of Ya-Sin’s hands, the movement of his hips or some other detail gleaned from years of experience in the NFL.
When that pairing rotates back through the line, Ya-Sin invariably will make a play on the ball and win the matchup.
That’s what head coach Frank Reich is looking for when he says he wants players who will compete.
It’s also an essential trait for a cornerback. The rules are slanted toward the offense, and receivers seem to get bigger and faster every year.
Getting beat is an unavoidable fact of life for young defensive backs in the NFL. The key is learning to discard the mistakes and refocus on the next snap.
Ya-Sin already seems to have that skill mastered.
“He competes,” four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton said. “He competes at a high level and plays the game the right way. You beat him on one play, he gets you the next play. It’s always the next play for him. As long as he continues to keep playing the way he’s playing, the sky’s the limit for him.”
The coaching staff has shown its faith in Ya-Sin by routinely matching him up on Hilton during late-practice team drills.
It’s a trial by fire of sorts that feeds into the second-rounder’s history as a quick learner.
A two-time state wrestling champion in Georgia, he chose to play football at the next level despite being ranked as just a two-star recruit.
Raw and relatively untested, he quickly moved up the depth chart at Presbyterian College — a non-scholarship program in the Football Championship Subdivision. He played in all 11 games as a freshman, started all 11 as a sophomore and was an All-Big South selection as a junior.
That upward momentum continued when he transferred to Temple — and the top-level Football Bowl Subdivision — for his final season. Ya-Sin earned a single-digit jersey number — an honor reserved for the Owls’ toughest players — in less than six months with the program and was named first-team All-American Athletic Conference.
Still, opinions were somewhat split as Ya-Sin entered the NFL Draft.
Some evaluators saw him as the top cornerback available this spring. Others saw a still raw prospect who would need time to master techniques before making an impact at the pro level.
Ya-Sin is the first to admit there’s been a learning curve through spring practice and the start of training camp — especially when it comes to the speed of the NFL game.
“It’s really that much faster,” he said. “Players are better and the ball placement of the quarterback is always on. Like, it’s on. If you’re beat, you’re beat. So you have to make sure you stay in great coverage and play with great technique if you want to win routes.”
Ya-Sin remains a work in progress, but he’s beginning to separate himself in a tight cornerback competition with some skills that can’t be taught.
Kenny Moore II and Pierre Desir appear to have the starting roles in the base defense locked down. But in a league where sub packages are being played on 75 percent or more of the regular-season snaps, the third cornerback spot also qualifies as a starting role.
Ya-Sin is competing with Quincy Wilson, Nate Hairston, Jalen Collins and Chris Milton among others to fill that role. Each player has his own strengths.
Wilson has shown the versatility to play all five defensive back spots in the nickel defense and has even been used as a hybrid linebacker from time to time in dime packages. Hairston might be the team’s best slot defender behind the incomparable Moore.
Collins is the most experienced member of the group with a starting role in Super Bowl LI at the top of his resume. And Milton is a special-teams ace who has made a big leap in his coverage abilities this offseason.
Ya-Sin is proving to be a ballhawk — a highly valued skill in a defensive scheme that emphasizes turnovers — and he’s shown he can find the football in a variety of situations.
“I would say some of the interceptions he’s gotten — three of them so far — have been really concentration,” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “He’s got really good concentration. The three that he’s had have been tipped balls, or second (chances) — not immediately interceptions, but a tipped ball. So you have to really focus, pay attention and concentrate. He’s done a good job of that.”
There’s still a long way to go before Ya-Sin can say he has arrived, but he’s positioned himself as one of the young players to watch when the Colts open the preseason Thursday night on the road against the Buffalo Bills.
Ultimately, live game reps are going to determine the results of the cornerback competition and help to define Ya-Sin’s ceiling.
But, in keeping with his own playing history, he’s already made a big impression on some of his most important peers.
“The young cornerbacks that we have are competing,” Hilton said. “And as long as they continue competing, they’ll give themselves a shot. Rock’s one of the guys that’s really standing out. He’s really gonna be special in this league.”