Colts' Rock Ya-Sin tough to pin down on improbable NFL journey

Late-bloomer Rock Ya-Sin has shown an aptitude for zone and man schemes with the Colts. Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

WESTFIELD, Ind. -- Rock Ya-Sin wasn’t trying to hear Keith Johnson, his wrestling coach at Southwest DeKalb High School in Decatur, Georgia. Johnson told Ya-Sin, a junior in high school at the time, that he should go out for the football team even though Ya-Sin had never played the sport before.

Ya-Sin respected his coach but wanted nothing to do football. He wanted to be a college wrestler, just like Johnson had been.

“I flat out told him that wrestling would only take him so far,” Johnson said. “It would only get the discipline in him. The thing is, Rock didn’t need the discipline part. He already had it in him.”

Pulling Ya-Sin away from wrestling was just one of several decisions he had to make on his way to becoming the first player the Indianapolis Colts selected in this year’s NFL draft, putting himself in the position to make a run at being their No. 2 cornerback, behind Pierre Desir.

Ya-Sin first signed to play football for Presbyterian, a Football Championship Subdivision school that after three seasons became a non-scholarship school. He transferred to Temple and immediately was given a single-digit number, which typically goes to the nine toughest players on the team. One standout season with the Owls put him on a path to the second round of the draft.

“It’s crazy how some things play out, huh?” Ya-Sin said with a laugh.

Crazy as in Ya-Sin going toe-to-toe daily with receivers T.Y. Hilton and Devin Funchess in training camp instead of starting a career as a physical therapist, which is what he'd likely be doing if he had stuck with wrestling. He was recruited by the likes of Virginia, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech.

Ya-Sin also might not have even put himself on the NFL radar if Presbyterian had remained a scholarship football program.

"Rock, Presbyterian, to Temple," said Colts general manager Chris Ballard. "They have a high level of confidence that they can play. That was one of the neat things. It’s like what I saw with Darius [Leonard] last year. He stepped on that Senior Bowl field and he belonged. Players, they just feel like they belong. They walk out on the NFL -- they belong.”

Wrestling was Ya-Sin’s love, though. That’s all he cared about, all he wanted to do. He was a two-time state champion in high school, and had several Division I schools recruiting him. Being able to play college football was going to be tougher for Ya-Sin, since he didn’t decide to give it a try until his junior year -- a time when colleges have already zeroed in on their recruiting targets.

But just as he did on the wrestling mat, Ya-Sin turned heads on the football field with his athleticism. Colleges such as Tennessee State and Hampton recruited him. But there was one coach who continued to draw Ya-Sin’s attention: Presbyterian coach Tommy Spangler.

Spangler didn’t just attend Ya-Sin’s football games, he also showed up at his wrestling matches. That type of commitment didn’t go unnoticed.

“That’s not common,” Johnson said. “I knew they really wanted Rock and would take care of him if he decided to go there. Most coaches wouldn’t do that.”

Spangler added, “Rock is such an awesome person who appreciated how he got recruited even though it was Presbyterian. I think he appreciated the fact that we did it the right way. We were diligent how we recruited him and made sure we did the right thing. Knew he had a chance to play and play early.”

Ya-Sin started all 22 games during his sophomore and junior seasons. But his career took a turn following his junior season. Athletic director Danny Sterling informed the football team that it was leaving the Big South Conference to play in the non-scholarship Pioneer League starting in 2021. Players who were on scholarship at the time could keep their scholarships, but incoming players would not be on scholarship, which would make it tough for the school to continue to compete in the Big South until it made its transition to the Pioneer League.

Spangler believed Ya-Sin had the talent to go to schools such as South Carolina, Georgia and Clemson, but he wasn’t sure Ya-Sin would get much playing time, since he was heading into his senior year and would be eligible to play right away without having to sit out a year. Spangler made several calls to schools on Ya-Sin’s behalf, but Georgia Southern and Louisiana Tech didn’t have scholarships available or didn’t have a need for cornerbacks on the roster.

A member of Presbyterian’s coaching staff was friends with former Temple coach Geoff Collins. The Owls needed help at cornerback, which opened the door for Ya-Sin. Ya-Sin had 47 tackles and 12 passes defended while starting 12 games last season. He was named first-team American Athletic Conference.

Spangler let out a loud laugh on the phone and said, “I bet looking back, bet some of those who didn’t need him would have taken him.”

Colts Northeast scout Mike Derice had his eyes on Ya-Sin all season, but it wasn’t until the Senior Bowl in Alabama that Ya-Sin really caught the attention of many because of his ability to play man and zone defense. The Colts play a lot of zone in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ Cover-2 defense.

“He played a little bit of zone, but he played a lot of man,” Derice said of Ya-Sin. “In the fall, because he played so much man, it was hard to get a gauge on how he would play in [zone]. But the way he was able to transition [at the Senior Bowl], get downfield fast and flip his hips, those were the things that weren’t always evident on tape in the early part of the fall.”

Derice points back to Ya-Sin’s wrestling roots as to why he’s such a confident player who doesn’t shy away from competition, no matter how much bigger or faster the offensive player is.

“Wrestling, it’s man-on-man, one-on-one,” Derice said. “He has that confidence when he’s in man [coverage]. It doesn’t faze him, he doesn’t panic. When the ball is deep, he plays his role, plays his technique. He just doesn’t ever seem fazed. That was what I thought wrestling brought over the football. And the physicalness of tackling.”

The Colts recently released their unofficial depth chart, and Ya-Sin is listed behind Desir, but you can believe he’ll continue to push for significant snaps as the preseason continues.

“If you watch him before and after practice, he’s covering guys to get his feet and eyes warmed up, his hands,” Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “Afterwards, the same thing. He had a mistake and he’s down there [on the practice field] working on it. He might be by himself because everybody else is inside. He has a great maturity level about him.”

Working hard is the only way for Ya-Sin to approach a challenge, especially since he’s a late bloomer who needed a nudge from his wrestling coach and had to transfer from a FCS school to Temple.

“One thing we take a lot of pride in is -- as good a job as the Temple staff did with him -- Rock basically laid his foundation, the work habits he has and kind of fundamentals he has, I think he developed a lot of that at Presbyterian, which is a good thing,” Spangler said. “It’s such a unique story that here’s a guy who gives players a lot of hope. He didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school. Gives hope to some of these guys that sign and go to a lower-level school. We’re awful proud of him.”