No offense, but Temple's Nate Hairston has been a find on defense

SPORTS FBC-TEMPLE-UCONN 8 HC
Temple defensive back Nate Hairston (15) keeps Connecticut wide receiver Noel Thomas (5) from making a catch during a 21-0 victory at Pratt and Whitney Stadium in East Hartford, Connecticut, on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.

The last thing that Nate Hairston thought he'd be doing at Temple was playing defense.

Hairston was a wide receiver and defensive back at Gov. Thomas Johnson High in Frederick, Md., but he concentrated mainly on offense.

It was on offense where Hairston, now a redshirt senior, began his Temple career. After redshirting his freshman season, Hairston spent the next two years at receiver.

He even had seven receptions for 48 yards in the season-opening 37-7 win at Vanderbilt in 2014, but then caught only five more passes the rest of the season.

After that, Hairston switched to cornerback, where last year he appeared in all 14 games, making one start.

This season the 6-foot, 193-pound Hairston has started all 11 games for the Owls (8-3, 6-1 American Athletic Conference). Hairston has 15 tackles and one interception, but that doesn't begin to tell how valuable he has been in the secondary.

"Nate Hairston is probably going to be a pro," Temple coach Matt Rhule said. "And to think, he was a wide receiver [until last season]."

Hairston conceded that the transition to defense wasn't easy.

"In high school, I played a little bit of defense, but I was really an offensive guy," he said. "I am glad I made the switch to defense, but in the beginning, going from offense to defense was odd."

Since he hasn't played the position long, Hairston said he has plenty of room for growth as a corner.

"I still think my better days are ahead," he said. "I am enjoying the process, enjoying hanging with the other corners and being coached by Coach Fran [Brown]."

Going into the season, Temple had questions in the secondary, especially at corner, but Hairston and redshirt junior Artrel Foster have been a dependable combination. Temple leads the AAC in pass defense and is second nationally, allowing 142.2 yards per game.

Hairston said his time at receiver has benefited him in his new position.

"It helps me knowing splits and things like that and knowing what I used to do with corners, so it has definitely helped me to be an ex-receiver," he said.

When Temple hosts East Carolina (3-8, 1-6) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the regular-season finale at Lincoln Financial Field, Hairston and the secondary will face the Pirates' explosive passing attack.

East Carolina leads the AAC in passing offense, averaging 348.5 yards per game. The main threat is senior Zay Jones, who has 392 career receptions, most in Football Bowl Subdivision history.

"He is a good route runner and overall a really good receiver," Hairston said.

The Pirates aren't just a one-man receiving show. Quay Johnson has 54 receptions for 540 yards and three touchdowns, and Jimmy Williams has 40 catches for 732 yards and seven touchdowns.

A Temple win or a South Florida loss earlier on Saturday against Central Florida would give the Owls a second straight East Division title. The game will also be senior night for the Owls.

"Right now I am focused on East Carolina and that great offense they have, and not really focused on senior night or playing in a championship," Hairston said. "We are thinking of only beating East Carolina, that is all that is on our mind."

mnarducci@phillynews.com

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