INDIANAPOLIS — Rock Ya-Sin’s rookie season almost certainly was better than you remember.
During the season’s final eight weeks, the Indianapolis Colts cornerback surrendered a 67.7 passer rating when targeted, gave up 0.76 of a yard per coverage snap and averaged 17.1 snaps per reception allowed — according to stats reported by Stampede Blue analyst Zach Hicks. All three of those numbers ranked in the top 15 among NFL corners over the second half of the season.
Chances are those aren’t the games that come to mind when Ya-Sin’s name is mentioned, however. It’s more likely to be his five-penalty game against the Denver Broncos in Week 8.
That’s the game that had Ya-Sin’s teammates coming past his locker throughout the week, imploring him to keep his head up. They needn’t have bothered.
“I was proud of the way that I continued to get better throughout the season because you are at a crossroads,” Ya-Sin said. “That’s a turning point for a young player right there after having a really bad game or really bad games back-to-back. Being able to continue to get better, kind of silence the noise and continue to get better and continue to push forward, I was proud of myself for that. I was proud of how I finished the season.”
Now he’s hungry to build on that momentum.
When Ya-Sin was drafted with the 34th overall pick out of Temple, the front office and coaching staff raved about his competitive nature. He earned a single-digit jersey number with Owls — given to the toughest players on the team — despite being in the program for just a few months after transferring from Presbyterian. He also was a state-champion high school wrestler in Georgia, and that battle-ready mentality remains evident in his every movement.
“Let me tell you what I love about this kid,” Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard said during his season postmortem in January. “He’s exactly what we thought he was going to be in terms of grit, toughness. Holy crap, you line up [for] 16 games and you’re asked to play [against] some great players. All he does is work.”
That work has continued throughout the spring, despite the restrictions in place to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Players often make their biggest leap between their first and second seasons. There are a number of reasons behind the phenomenon.
Rookies rarely get an offseason. They go straight from their final college game to draft prep, then jump into workouts with their new team before playing at least a 20-game season, including four exhibition games.
Given the chance to rest their bodies and reflect on the lessons they’ve learned, many young players make marked improvement heading into Year 2. Ya-Sin sees no reason he won’t be among that number.
He’s continued training, running and lifting throughout the offseason, and he’s had a chance to watch film during virtual meetings with his teammates and coaches. The Colts also are expected to get together soon for players-only workouts that will begin the on-field bonding for the 2020 season.
Ya-Sin believes all of that will offset anything he’s lost because the team facility has been closed for much of the past three months.
But he truly believes the groundwork for this season was laid by his early entry into the fire last year. After a strong spring and summer, Ya-Sin was a major factor on defense from the start.
He appeared in 15 games with 13 starts and played 82 percent of Indianapolis’ defensive snaps. He made mistakes, and he learned from them.
And he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“I feel like the best teacher is experience,” Ya-Sin said. “I feel like they knew that they needed to get me out there so I could get my feet wet, and I was prepared for that. I was 100 percent prepared for that.”
He’s preparing for his second season in part by focusing on his footwork. Ya-Sin said if he can beat receivers with his feet early in a down, he won’t need to use his hands late and risk the kind of penalties that highlighted his worst game as a rookie.
Even in a virtual setting, his progress already has been evident. Fellow cornerback Kenny Moore II said Ya-Sin is more vocal in meetings, more likely to speak up and correct a teammate or provide his thoughts on a concept. In short, he’s more confident in his grasp of the scheme and his role within it.
“Rock is improving,” Moore said. “I’ve seen a change already from in the meeting rooms. Rock is great, though. The adversity that he was impacted with last year, he had to just keep swinging.”
Ya-Sin vows he’ll never stop.
He turned down NCAA Division I wrestling offers to stake his claim on the gridiron, chasing a dream based on potential after just two years of high school football.
Now that he’s reached the game’s highest level, he isn’t about to lose his fighting spirit.
“I’m always the underdog,” Ya-Sin said. “I’m always the guy who has had to work twice as hard. You can’t work that hard — you have invested too much to turn back. You see what I’m saying?
“Once you’ve invested so much, it’s like, ‘I’ve got to keep going forward. I’ve got to get to the finish.’”