Pushing back against Notre Dame's dynamic O-Line duo has Daelin Hayes rising

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The flip side of the bruising dominance Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson have come to exert with regularity this season is that someone in practice had to be on the receiving end of their ascent to college football’s most dynamic oversized duo.

Last spring, that someone was Daelin Hayes — an often-injured, breathtakingly athletic outside linebacker in high school who wanted to be the next Jaylon Smith at Notre Dame but was needed to be more like Justin Tuck.

Who the 6-foot-4, 258-pound sophomore defensive end has become heading into Saturday night’s showdown (8 EST; NBC) in Miami Gardens, Fla., between No. 3 Notre Dame (8-1) and its equally reawakened and resurgent rival No. 7 Miami (8-0) reflects profoundly how Hayes handled the task of McGlinchey/Nelson in his face on a daily basis.

And that, in turn, was a reflection of who Hayes’ mom, LaKeshia Neal, was in his eyes.

“I’m blessed that God blessed me with my mom, for her as a human being,” said Hayes, a productive first-year starter whose best football appears to be ahead of him. “Just doing what she does for me and my brothers, day in and day out, is truly amazing.”

So amazing, in fact, Hayes gives Neal a card on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Neal, an educational consultant, never took the easy way out, so neither would her oldest son. So when Hayes was tasked to fulfill Notre Dame’s foreign language requirement, instead of leaning on his high school experience with Spanish, he signed up for Portuguese.

And instead of asking for a simpler spring assignment than dealing with the 6-8, 315-pound McGlinchey and the 6-5, 330-pound Nelson, Hayes embraced the challenge.

“I was in awe of them, as a freshman,” said Hayes, one of only two five-star prospects on the Irish roster — the other being Nelson. “But I looked at it as an opportunity to get better.”

And better he has gotten.

Following an 11-tackle freshman season in 2016, Hayes has 25 going into the Miami game at Hard Rock Stadium. His 6.5 tackles for loss are tied for second on the team. And his three sacks have him in a four-way tie (with Jerry Tillery, Te’von Coney and Khalid Kareem) for the team lead.

The Irish defensive line collectively has accounted for 16 of the team’s 20 sacks this season. Last year, that position group amassed a total of three in 12 games. And the two players responsible for those three, Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones, are now on NFL rosters.

Hayes, a Belleville, Mich., product, also has a pass breakup, two fumble recoveries and three quarterback hurries.

So what must Hayes do next?

“I think playing the game with a consistency for him, week in and week out,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said. “How do you get to that level of consistency?

“His focus is great. How does he get to peak performance every week? I think now it becomes the mental piece for him and growing from there. I think the great part about it is he knows those things, and he's working on them each and every week.”

There’s an opening Saturday night to translate that work in practice into tangible production for Hayes on game day. Miami’s offensive line is a middling 60th in sacks allowed and leads the way for the nation’s 53rd-best rushing offense.

Then again, the entire Irish defense took a step back last weekend. After a sloppy week in practice, what had been a consistently improving defense gave up season highs in yards (587) and points (37) in an 11-point victory over Wake Forest.

Kelly, who will helm his 100th game as Irish coach Saturday night, said Thursday night he saw no such reprise in the days leading up to ND’s first appearance in Hard Rock Stadium since the 2012 BCS National Championship Game against Alabama on Jan. 7, 2013.

“We just had to get back on the same page and do what we needed to do,” Hayes said.

That means complementing Notre Dame’s offensive line play with strong performances from the defensive front. In all three of the meetings with Miami since the rivalry was resurrected in the 2010 Sun Bowl after a 20-year hiatus, Notre Dame has done just that.

How that looks in the running game is a 196-87 advantage in the 33-17 Sun Bowl victory, a 376-84 command in the 41-3 ND romp in 2012 in Chicago, and a 148-18 smothering last season in South Bend in a 30-27 Irish win that they almost gave away with horrific special teams play.

The difference this time supposedly is the venue, Miami’s home turf. It’s the first game between the two to be played in the 305 area code since the Hurricanes’ 27-10 victory over the Irish in the old Orange Bowl in 1979 that ultimately determined their 1-2 order in the final polls that season.

Hayes was at a loss to explain how he’d deal with what he was told would be an extremely hostile atmosphere, because he claims he’s trained himself not to notice the crowd noise.

“Unless I’m trying to get a check, I don’t really hear it,” he said. “It’s kind of like you’re zoned into what you have to do. It’s kind of fun. After you make a play, it kind of comes back and you hear it, but then it goes back away.”

There’s been some receding production at times during Hayes’ breakout season, but those moments seem to be less frequent with each passing week.

This is new territory for him, though. Between injuries and the residue of a custody battle, Hayes played less than 10 games over his final three years in high school. Last season he was a niche player for the Irish, and saw just 15 snaps in that Miami game.

He is being pushed mentally and physically deeper into the calendar year than ever before.

“I think overcoming my body being sore all the time, I think I’m adapting to that and really starting to thrive,” he said. “As far as mentally, I just want to get better each and every week. I’m just going to keep taking those steps to just become a more consistent and dominant player.”

His experience last spring never shriveling against what now may be the best offensive line in the country pushes that goal toward reality.

“They’ve always had something special,” Hayes said of the offensive line. “They eat lunch together. They leave out to practice together. They do everything together. I think that definitely shows.”

And for the first time in a long time, it’s showing up on both sides of the ball.

Notre Dame defensive end Daelin Hayes high-fives fans following ND's 49-14 romp over USC, Oct. 21 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)