Toiling in obscurity paved the way for Notre Dame DE Jay Hayes' rise
In a phone call just hours before his first collegiate start, Jay Hayes was reminded about all the work he did when no one was watching as he tried to restart his flailing dreams.
The call came from former Notre Dame defensive end and fellow Brooklynite Ishaq Williams, shortly before Hayes recorded a career-high five tackles in a 49-16 dismissal of Temple, followed by another career-high — seven — a week later in a 20-19 loss to Georgia.
The 12 tackles make him ND’s second-leading tackler heading into Saturday’s clash at Catholic school rival Boston College (1-1) and match the number of tackles he had amassed cumulatively in the 6-foot-4, 290-pound senior’s first three years at ND (1-1).
Kickoff for ND-BC’s 24th meeting is 3:30 p.m. EDT. ESPN has the telecast from Chestnut Hill, Mass.
The covert work for Hayes came in the form of scout team duty, a quasi-demotion during an unplanned redshirt year in 2015 in which Hayes had to try to tame ND’s left tackle that season, future first-round NFL draft pick Ronnie Stanley, on a daily basis in practice.
Since Harry Hiestand became ND’s offensive line coach in 2012, the offensive line unit is always the last position group to leave the practice field. Always. In 2015, Hayes put in the overtime with them.
“Just so I could learn,” he said. “Ronnie was like so good to go against. It was a great opportunity to learn hand usage, to match his footwork, to see the way he was moving as a tackle. It was a pretty good experience, even if it was hard.”
Similarly challenging that 2015 season was the inner battle to convert frustration into humility. Hayes took a step in the wrong direction early on, lashing out at the ND coaching staff publicly on Twitter and suggesting a transfer by Hayes would be pending.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly responded by removing Hayes from the active roster indefinitely. Hayes stayed — and transformed. And because he sat out that season, Hayes does have a fifth-year option to return in 2018.
“You’ve got to take a lot of time to think and talk to guys who have been through it,” Hayes said of what changed his frame of mind.
Former Irish defensive tackle Sheldon Day was a strong influence in that regard. So was Ishaq Williams, who was suspended Hayes’ entire freshman season, during ND’s academic dishonesty investigation, in 2014.
But after Williams was reinstated at Notre Dame in the summer of 2015, the NCAA didn’t follow suit and in fact banned him from even practicing with the team during his final season of eligibility (2015).
With Williams’ own football future appearing to be crumbling, he reassured Hayes that didn’t have to be the case with him.
“I always believed in myself, so I thought I’d get there eventually. I just didn’t know how,” Hayes said. “Ishaq’s just like a big brother. When I was down and out, he made sure he picked me up and told me, you’re going to be good. You’re going to make it.”
Actually, Williams is making it as well. He beat the long odds of not having played for his final two college seasons and made the New York Giants’ practice squad from a tryout that turned into a long look in training camp.
Williams is still with the team in 2017, though he began the season on the injured reserve list.
Lingering injuries for Hayes, an in-season ouster of then-defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder last September and ambiguous direction from the old strength and conditioning staff mitigated Hayes’ progress in 2016.
“Dave Ballou is incredible when it comes to stuff concerning corrections and dysfunctions,” Kelly said of ND’s first-year co-director of strength and conditioning on Matt Balis’ staff. “There’s more of an understanding of how to diagnose that and how to correct that.
“Jay Hayes, that’s the guy who’s been changed the most by this. He’s so much more powerful now. His physical transformation is as impressive as anyone we’ve ever had.
“Jay Hayes was a big kid with an imperfect stride. He needed orthotics. We needed to correct his dysfunctions. Because he was a big kid, no one really ever looked into it. And while he got bigger and bigger, those dysfunctions got layered on top of each other.
“And, so this big, strong guy couldn’t stay on his feet. How can he not stay on his feet? Well, he can now. He’s a different player. A powerful player.”
And yet there’s still some of that light-hearted Jay Hayes inside him.
Before Hayes surfaced as a statistical force, he was a comedic one. His specialty? Impressions. He does a killer Brian Kelly, for instance.
How about first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko?
“He told me not to even impersonate him,” Hayes said with a laugh. “He said, ‘If you impersonate me, I’ll bench you.’ ”
“He's a goofball,” Irish senior rover and captain Drue Tranquill offered of Hayes. “The guys love him. He makes us laugh. He brings a light tone when things are serious or dull. And so he's kind of been a spark for guys ever since he walked in the building. So to see him making plays, it gets guys fired up.”
Hayes credits Elko and defensive line coach Mike Elston, the latter returning to that position after coaching linebackers from 2014-16, as key figures in his fast start to the 2017 season.
To see what a difference the right defensive coordinator can make, one only has to look at Saturday’s opponent, Boston College. The year before current BC head coach and former ND assistant Steve Addazio hired Don Brown as his coordinator, the Eagles ranked 100th nationally in total defense.
In Brown’s first year, they improved subtly to No. 92, then to No. 1 in 2014 and were No. 9 in 2015 before Jim Harbaugh hired him away. The Wolverines had the No. 1 defense in 2016 and are No. 9 heading into week three, with a largely new cast.
ND is 49th in total defense heading into the BC game, five spots ahead of the Eagles.
“It’s basically just being free and confident,” Hayes said of Elko’s approach. “That’s basically how guys are playing, and guys enjoy playing confident.
“I think it starts with the defensive line unit, making it a brotherhood and keeping it real with each other and calling people out when you’re not playing physical. Emphasizing playing physical. Emphasizing playing fast. Emphasizing being confident. Emphasizing knowing what you’re doing.
“That’s all the things we do in the defensive line room, and it’s just a positive energy that’s flowing through the room.”
And in the middle of it all is Jay Hayes.
“He's a great teammate and he's going to continue to work his butt off to make sure his job is taken care of each and every week,” Irish left tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “He's shown some signs of domination, as well.
“He's put a lot of time into this game, and certainly evolved as a player since he first got here.”
Said Hayes, “It’s cool and all, but I know there’s more to come. There’s better that I can still do.”