Noie: Patience part of the process for Notre Dame DE Daelin Hayes

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Terrorizing the quarterback to the tune of three sacks in the spring game sent the 2017 expectation level for Notre Dame sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes into the stratosphere.

At last, after so many seasons of searching and struggling, the Irish looked like they had found someone who could be a consistent difference-maker along the defensive line. He could bully slower-footed/unsuspecting offensive linemen, chase down the quarterback and blow up big plays. He could use his quickness to shed blockers and negate chunk plays to the outside. He could play with a motor that never slowed.

Hayes would mirror the work of two guys he patterns his game after — perennial NFL Pro Bowlers Khalil Mack of Oakland and Denver’s Von Miller.

To be all that, Hayes first needed to practice something he’s never had much of — patience.

“It’s not easy; it’s actually pretty hard,” he said. “That’s been my biggest maturation process. You want it now.

“It will happen when it happens.”

It took a conversation with his mother, Lakeshia Neal, for Hayes to understand that for as well as he had worked back in the spring, for the small steps that he had taken as a freshman when he played in all 12 games, there was a ways to go. A long ways to go before Hayes could be considered a finished product. He’s not even close. He knows it.

“This is what my mom tells me — she sits me down and tells me that we live in a society where you want everything right now, right?” Hayes said earlier this week in his spirited post-practice session with the media. “You want to make the big plays. You want to be dominant. You want to be this, that, all right now.”

But ...

“There’s a process to do it,” Hayes said. “I have things I want to clean up. I have things that I want to get better at, but just understanding the end goal of being a dominant player, there’s a process to that.”

The process. Hayes must have mentioned the phrase a dozen times in 15 minutes. He’s played well to date with 12 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and his first career sack, which he registered on the third play of the third quarter in the opener against Temple. But for all he’s done, and all he can do, it’s all about the process of becoming a complete player.

It’s something that started long before he had those three “sacks” in the spring, which were sacks but not really since Irish quarterbacks were in red jerseys and deemed off limits to anything that might do them harm. For Hayes, it started during winter conditioning. The early-morning lifts. And runs. Training sessions with his teammates. He added 25 pounds of what head coach Brian Kelly classified as “really good cargo.”

The offseason saw Hayes cut his body fat from 18 to 10 percent on a 6-foot-3, 258-pound chiseled frame. Hayes isn’t afraid to let others see his six-pack abs, which were anything but when the Belleville, Mich., native first arrived on campus after decommitting from rival Southern California.

Hayes also has benefited from long talks with defensive line coach Mike Elston. What did the dialogue center around? What else?

The process.

“He said something to me that was very insightful,” Hayes said. “I play defensive end. Obviously, the end goal is to be a dominant defensive end, a first-round (NFL pick) defensive end.

“Are you there right now? No. You don’t have to be, but you have to work that process. You have to be intentional with that process each and every day coming in with an attitude to be better.”

And always try to get better. Just being better today than he was yesterday and doing the same tomorrow on the practice field isn’t enough for Hayes. Had it not been for the Wednesday session with the media, Hayes would have grabbed a quick dinner at the Guglielmino Athletic Complex, then punched up that day’s practice session on his iPad, which he would have watched from start to finish immediately after practice.

Does it almost every day. Looks for ways to get better. Studies offensive linemen closer to find weaknesses. It’s all part of his process.

It takes about 90 minutes a night to burn through that day’s practice cuts, something Hayes has learned to do with more of a purpose. If he’s required to read a book for a class assignment, Hayes might find himself “zoning out” as he dives deeper into chapter after chapter.

But when it comes to practice film — his film — that holds Hayes’ attention from start to finish.

“With football, man, once I’m in it, I’m in it,” he said.

A new Hayes

Hayes is just happy to be in it. Nagging right and left shoulder issues — three surgeries were required to fix those problems — helped limit Hayes to fewer than 10 games over his final three years of high school. He missed much of his senior year at Ann Arbor's Skyline High School because of the injuries. Each time Hayes thought he’d be on the field doing something special, he’d be back on the sideline in a sling nursing yet more soreness.

Midway through his second season at Notre Dame, Hayes has yet to miss a game. He still experiences soreness, but it’s the best kind. It’s from having emptied his energy tank the previous night. His body aches for much of Sunday and into Monday. By Tuesday, he’s ready to do it all over again.

Health is not something Hayes takes for granted. Ever. He even knocked on the wood podium he stood at Wednesday to reinforce it.

“I’m grateful to go out and play, play a game that I love,” he said.

Hayes is part of a defensive line that’s been a big reason why Notre Dame has limited each of its first five opponents to 20 or fewer points heading into Saturday’s test at North Carolina (1-4). Hayes has played well, but he’s not alone. On the other end is Julian Okwara, who’s creating his own havoc on opposing backfields. In the middle is Jerry Tillery, who earned a game ball for his efforts in the win over Miami (Ohio). There’s been a steady rotation of big guys making a bigger difference. It’s also been Johnathan Bonner and Jay Hayes (no relation) and Khalid Kareem and Andrew Trumbetti.

“I think I've been the guy that's been ringing that bell from Day One about expecting that our defensive line was going to play better than many thought,” Kelly said. “We're getting sacks, we're getting hurries. We're making it very difficult for quarterbacks to just sit back there and throw the football.

“We’re getting really good play.”

Hayes can sense the difference in the D-line. There’s a deeper level of commitment, of work ethic, of production, of trust that just wasn’t there last season. Now it is. From him. From the guy next to him. From everyone.

“These guys are having fun,” Hayes said. “Guys are locked into their assignments and just want to make plays and play hard.”

Hayes and the defensive line will be challenged Saturday by an up-tempo offense. The Tar Heels want to play fast, which means the Irish defense will have to do the same. Act fast. Think fast. Be intentional with their substitution patterns and locked in on their assignments. It’s going to test the Irish bigs up front, especially if there’s heat and humidity hanging around Kenan Memorial Stadium.

Hayes embraces the opportunity.

“That’s what you train for, for situations like this,” he said. “This is what you go through in those strenuous summers and winter conditioning.

“We’ve got to come out and play our best.”

If the Irish do that, a really big reward awaits with a bye week beckoning. Short of finding a way to finish against No. 5 Georgia, the No. 21 Irish couldn’t ask for anything better.

“It would be phenomenal to go into that break 5-1,” Hayes said.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes is becoming a play-maker for the Irish. (SBT Photo/MICHAEL CATERNIA)