Jay Hayes isn't wrestling with all Notre Dame's defensive changes
SOUTH BEND — A peek into Jay Hayes’ new world stunningly isn’t much different than his old one, with two notable exceptions:
Increased playing time on the field and increased antics in the defensive meeting room.
On Wednesday, new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Greg Hudson, per Hayes, started the 2:45 meeting by playing 67-year-old pro wrestling legend Ric Flair’s entrance music to set the tone.
“He tried to (strut like Flair), but he’s a stiff guy,” the junior defensive end said with a hearty laugh. “He’s a good guy so far. We love him. Right now, we’re feeling comfortable with him.
“He’s one of ours. And the thing about it is you’re seeing a lot of energy from guys, younger guys too, putting it on the line, practicing hard.”
The translation to a game situation is expected to be smoother and more consistent than last Saturday’s 50-33 mauling of Syracuse at East Rutherford, N.J., in which the nation’s No. 106 defense gained confidence and proficiency after a rocky first quarter.
Hayes, a Brooklyn, N.Y., product, garnered three of his now seven career tackles in the game, his first career tackle for loss and his first quarterback hurry, with his mother watching in person at MetLife Stadium.
Game No. 2 under the leadership of Hudson and collaboration of new defense enthusiast head coach Brian Kelly, at offensively dynamic North Carolina State (3-1), is still set for Saturday at noon in Raleigh, N.C.
Revised computer models of Hurricane Matthew have N.C. State officials confident the game will be played as scheduled, but in a statement released Wednesday evening, they vowed to continue to monitor the weather and update fans.
Similarly uncertain is Hayes’ role moving forward from the most extensive playing time and highest-leverage snaps of his career.
Which is just fine with him. He’s cozied up to the unknown, learned to have faith when there’s not a lot in his circumstances to inspire it, learned patience and perseverance in a career that consists of five cameos to go along with last week’s extended opportunity for a player that pushed away offers from Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, Michigan and USC, among others, to play for the Irish.
And yet the player who perhaps stands to benefit the most from Brian VanGorder’s Sept. 25 ouster and the philosophical changes that came along with that, ironically, credits the deposed defensive coordinator for his drastic and lasting perceptual shift.
“It’s not like when a person leaves, you forget the things he’s taught us,” Hayes said. “Mental toughness. What’s going to break you? Don’t fall too easily. But if you fall, get back up.
“So when I wasn’t getting a chance, I think the typical guy would be upset. But I think we’re also here to learn how to be a man. So there’s no time for me to really be selfish at this moment in time when we were trying to turn the season around. I can’t let my teammates down.”
Against Syracuse Hayes moved from the weakside end position over to strongside, where he shared reps with senior Isaac Rochell and often in a 3-4 front, something rarely utilized since Bob Diaco was ND’s defensive coordinator 2010-13.
“He did some pretty good things,” Kelly said of Hayes. “He's a big, physical kid. Obviously, when you're in our stack defense, it allows him to really bully that tackle, playing inside-out.
“My job is to really get our guys in positions where they can maximize their talent. This really allows Jay to blossom, in this kind of look.”
But that look might change this weekend against the Wolfpack, and then again the following week against Stanford.
“We’re starting to do different things for different teams,” Hayes said. “Whatever role I have, that’s my role. It’s back to fundamentals and working hard and doing what I do to get on the field.
“I think we just really need to use our techniques to excel at this new defense. It’s about technique. It’s about toughness. It’s about grit. It’s about being real physical, and that’s really what we have to do.”
And Saturday they’ll have to do that against an offense currently ranked the highest (21st) of any team remaining on the Irish schedule and three spots higher than the Syracuse attack that gave them so much trouble for a half last weekend.
Quarterback Ryan Finley, a Boise State transfer, ranks 11th nationally in passing efficiency, two spots below ND’s DeShone Kizer. Notably, the Wolfpack rank third nationally in fewest turnover lost (3) and second in the FBS in third-down conversion percentage (55 percent).
Notre Dame, meanwhile, will continue to try to prove it’s better than its historically bad defensive numbers and that Hudson was the right choice to fix them.
“He came in and was offered the role,” Hayes said. “It could have been good. It could have been bad. The whole week he was invested. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like it’s the whole utopia. Yesterday he yelled at us.
“But I mean, you’re just proud of him when you see somebody in that position get a win. He’s a good energy guy, He’s cool.”
KICKOFF: Saturday at Noon EDT
WHERE: Carter-Finley Stadium; Raleigh, N.C.
RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
LINE: N.C. State by 2 1/2