Will production meet potential for Notre Dame DE Daelin Hayes?

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

To this point, Daelin Hayes has been defined by potential, not production.

When he signed with Notre Dame in Feb. 2016, Hayes — a 6-foot-4, 258-pound sophomore defensive end — was ranked as a five-star prospect and the No. 31 overall recruit in his class by Rivals. That’s despite the fact that his prep career was marked more by a series of shoulder injuries than a steady stream of sacks. He had a high ceiling, but few available stats.

Last season, in his Notre Dame debut, Hayes played sparingly and delivered 11 tackles and a forced fumble in 12 games.

But, in April’s Blue-Gold game, potential and production may have finally met.

Sure, a sack in a late spring scrimmage doesn’t involve physically touching the quarterback, but Hayes racked up seven tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks nonetheless. Moreover, that explosion came against the first-team Irish offense.

On a sunny Saturday inside Notre Dame Stadium, Hayes looked like the player he was always projected to be.

“Daelin got a boost of confidence in the spring,” said Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston. “Prior to the spring he really didn’t play much. He was a backup as a true freshman in a smaller defined role, in a package here and there. But you go out in a spring game and you have success and you have some sacks, and you walk around with your chest puffed out a little bit.”

That’s not purely symbolic, either. A year ago, Hayes says he could bench press 13 reps of 225 pounds. When fall camp began, with six months of director of football performance Matt Balis’ workout regimen behind him, he pumped out 23 reps.

Hayes’ production has been bolstered not just by a more tangibly powerful frame, but by the guys that keep pushing back.

“You go against million dollar left guards and left tackles every day, it’s bound to bring your game along,” Hayes said. “So I’m thankful for it, man. I love going against those guys every day. If I can do what I do in practice, when we start playing other teams and guys who aren’t (left tackle) Mike McGlinchey and (left guard Quenton Nelson), the game should be easy.”

For now, at least, it’s hard. Consistently, unmercifully difficult.

And Hayes, for one, is thankful for it.

“You think about, ‘Wow, this is a first round offensive tackle.’ Some guys might get discouraged,” Hayes said. “I looked at it since my freshman year as an opportunity. It’s not an obstacle. It’s an opportunity.

“You have a guy who’s really, really good at what he does. You have to take that and feed off of that and take your game to the next level by going against him every day. So I embrace it wholeheartedly.”

Hayes’ mindset, however, wasn’t fostered completely by a daily date with McGlinchey and Co. He also extends credit to Elston, who took over for Keith Gilmore this offseason and has been tasked with solidifying a position that was an underperforming eyesore in 2016.

“I think that coach Elston is the best thing that could have happened for the D-line,” Hayes said. “His energy, his expectations for the D-line, the sense of urgency that he brings and the attention to detail … everything that we do.

“For a group that was a little immature, he’s bringing that maturing process along and professionalizing our work each and every day.”

As a result, Notre Dame’s defensive linemen are striving to practice what they preach.

“Me, (Andrew Trumbetti), Jay Hayes, Jerry (Tillery) — we’ve tried to take on more of a leadership role with the D-line,” Hayes said, “enforcing a culture and being serious and locked in and focused, and ultimately being a dominant force.”

Still, it’s one thing to say it, and quite another to be it. Remember, this is still a defensive line that lost its two most consistent contributors — Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones — this offseason. It’s a group that lost what would have been its most statistically proven returner — nose tackle Daniel Cage — to concussions and a knee injury prior to the start of fall camp. It’s a unit whose returners failed to record a single solitary sack last fall.

And yet, there’s potential … if not a wealth of proven production. Hayes knows a thing or two about that.

“You guys are going to see,” he said with a grin, when asked how an offseason of strength gains and consistent competition has changed his game. “You guys will see soon enough.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Daelin Hayes during the first practice of fall camp for Notre Dame Football Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, at Culver Academies in Culver, Ind. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN