INDIANAPOLIS —Nate Hairston may officially still be in his rookie season, but he doesn't want that label to define his play.
Case in point: the cornerback was in coverage last Sunday on both of the Jacksonville Jaguars' touchdown passes in the Indianapolis Colts' 30-10 loss at EverBank Stadium. Now 13 weeks through his first NFL season, Hairston, the Colts' 2017 fifth-round pick in this year's draft, had no excuses when discussing the game the next day with reporters — and he certainly wasn't going to use his experience as one.
"No. I mean, I don't really know what that means to kind of feel like a rookie anyway," Hairston said. "But I know my team depends on me to go out there and do my job."
The Colts' top nickel cornerback since Week 1, Hairston has only missed one game this season — a quad injury kept him out of the Week 5 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers — so he has had the opportunity for plenty of live game reps. In fact, his 444 total defensive snaps through 12 games are the eighth-most on the team.
But after injuries to veteran cornerbacks Rashaan Melvin and Pierre Desir, two more Colts rookie corners, Kenny Moore II and Quincy Wilson, were forced into significant playing time themselves against Jacksonville, and the youth in the secondary showed at times, especially on the Jaguars' passing touchdowns.
"On those plays we had miscommunication, which is never a good thing," Hairston said. "You have to be on the same page. You can't be playing two different defenses – one guy is doing this, one guy is doing that. We have to be on the same page. At the end of the day, it's never acceptable."
Colts head coach Chuck Pagano elaborated on Hairston's point on Monday.
"The thing that happened in the red area down there – they've all got to be on the same page," Pagano said. "We always say, 'If you're all wrong, you're all right.' So if everybody is playing the same thing – it's supposed to be Cover 2 but they all play Cover 3 – you're OK. But if half are playing (Cover) 3 and half are playing (Cover) 2, you've got a problem."
The same goes for man-to-man coverage, especially in the crowded red zone.
"And man coverage – if you don't have the communication down where we're locking this guy and we're going to in-and-out on these two other guys and they put another dude in it, a four-by-one with a back offset to the bunch," Pagano explained in detail. "Again, chances are with young players that haven't been in that situation a lot it gets difficult. And it happens, especially where it was, it happens really fast down there."
Hairston has played in 11 games in all, with two starts to his credit, and seems ready to take on more of a leadership role within the secondary. He acknowledges that process starts with getting the communication issues sorted out and ensuring his teammates, no matter how much NFL experience they have, can always play like veterans who understand the intricacies of their assignments.
"That's not an excuse at all," Hairston said, again referring to being a rookie. "You're out there on the field, you're a football player and you get paid to do this. There's no reason – young or nothing like that – that's never an excuse."
That attitude has earned the respect of Hairston's teammates and coaches this season — as has the Temple product's play. He's collected 32 tackles (two for a loss), one interception, five passes defensed, three quarterback hits and two sacks, one of which involved taking down the always-elusive Russell Wilson in the end zone for a safety against the Seattle Seahawks, the team's first dating back to Dec. 27, 2015, in a win against the Miami Dolphins.
With production like that, Pagano acknowledges sometimes you just take the good with the occasional hiccup that comes with a talented, young cornerback. But now that injuries have led to the entire position group going young for the foreseeable future, the Colts' head coach realizes every live snap they get, good or bad, will serve those players, and the team, better moving forward, continuing Sunday on the road against the Buffalo Bills.
"Just like Jacoby (Brissett) at quarterback, it's baptism under fire," Pagano said. "It's growing pains, but I think they'd all rather be doing that than sitting around. It's a tough deal, but again, they'll go through it and you learn the lessons from it and you keep growing, you keep getting better."