Comfort hasn’t come quickly for Daelin Hayes.
Uncertainty didn’t prevent the defensive end from playing in his first two seasons at Notre Dame, but the transition to college football has had its bumps.
Playing in two different defenses in his first two years with the Irish hasn’t made it easy on the former Rivals five-star recruit. With spring football underway, the 6-foot-4, 263-pound junior already has taken direction from three different defensive coordinators.
Throw in the fact that Hayes played most of his high school career at linebacker, and it’s no wonder that he’s only just now settling in at Notre Dame. He finally feels like he understands the drop end position he’s been asked to play.
“From this time last year, or even from in-season, it’s something I’ve become extremely comfortable in,” Hayes said. “Being in a set position, the D-end position, being converted from linebacker from high school, and just going into my third year playing the position, I really feel comfortable and confident in what I’m doing each and every day. It’s showing in my play — how fast I’m able to diagnose and be able to react and go ahead and make plays.”
The Irish defense would welcome an uptick in production from Hayes. In 13 games, 12 of which he started, Hayes totaled 30 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. His production behind the line of scrimmage wasn’t much better than backup defensive ends Khalid Kareem (5.5 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks) and Julian Okwara (4.5, 2.5).
“The only thing he’s missing, really, is continued confidence in the position in which he plays,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Hayes. “Not in himself — he’s an extremely confident young man and carries himself as such. But the position he plays was new to him. The nuances of that position maybe got him a little tentative as the year went on.
“His knowledge base is so much better this year understanding his position and how it relates to the 11 players. He looks great, he’s physical and he’s playing the kind of football we expect him to play next year right now.”
Last season, Hayes said he played at around 249 pounds. With nearly 15 more pounds of weight on him, Hayes should have a better handle on the physicality required at drop end. Hayes said that’s the biggest challenge of the position.
But strength alone won’t let Hayes reach his potential. Defensive line coach Mike Elston has been working with Hayes to get him to utilize his hands with proper technique.
“Daelin gets into the habit of dipping the shoulder and not using his hands to violently attack our offensive linemen or a tight end,” Elston said. “It’s just a consistency of that that will allow his production to go up.
“Daelin has played a lot of football, but he doesn’t have a lot of production. We need him to be productive. Julian goes out there with less plays and has production. He uses his hands, he gets off blocks, he’s violent in pass rush. Daelin has that up and down because he doesn’t use his hands consistently.”
That just so happens to be the area Hayes feels he’s made the biggest strides in the offseason.
“My hands for sure,” Hayes said. “My hand fluidity, my hip and hand placement when I’m rushing, getting everything coordinated. I feel a lot more coordinated, a lot more explosive. I feel fast. I feel that comfort.”
The offseason also offered Hayes an opportunity to grow as a leader. Kelly chose Hayes as one of a few football players to take part in the Rosenthal Leadership Academy at Notre Dame.
The program for student-athletes held a retreat in January with four workshops throughout the winter.
“The biggest thing was that accountability that a leader owes to his team,” Hayes said of what he learned. “Being able to speak up and being able to be a force that’s not only an example for other players, but physically bring other guys along with him. He’s not afraid to speak up, to use his voice, to really influence his team.”
With 10 players returning with at least seven starts last season on Notre Dame’s defense, the Irish shouldn’t be hurting for leadership. The experience of the collective group already has been evident to Hayes.
A lack of comfort can no longer be an option for Hayes. His chance to live up to the lofty recruiting hype starts now.
“When you’re comfortable in the system and you don’t have to think,” Hayes said, “your God-given ability takes over at that point.”