Star-crossed no more, Notre Dame DE Daelin Hayes moves past weighty expectations

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Daelin Hayes was seeing stars, and in the worst kind of way.

Recruiting stars. Five of them. And the highest rating that recruiting website Rivals brands prospects with finally started to feel heavy this season to the only player on the current Notre Dame roster to be so designated.

Early in his career, the Irish junior defensive end from Belleville, Mich., had alibis with which he could console himself for a more deliberate development path than his recruiting hype might suggest.

A shoulder injury in high school that lingered into early enrollment at ND. Limited high school experience (less than 10 actual games in three years) because of injuries and cross-country family moves. A position change in college from outside linebacker. Coordinator changes and schematic tweaks.

Then suddenly this season they all kind of hit an expiration date, and Hayes started wondering why he wasn’t measuring up.

The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder called it a funk. He also called it something that’s fading fast.

“If I play with that over my head — that mental baggage — it takes away from my game,” said Hayes, ND’s 11th-leading tackler with 24, including 3.5 for losses with a sack. “That’s something I’ve had to learn to overcome. In these last few weeks, I’ve really been feeling free and just playing ball.

“The thing about it is, it’s not like I’m out there doing bad things. That’s not what it is. It’s like just not producing as much as I would want to or what I feel is expected of me. That’s the mental hurdle that I have.

“It’s just a lack of patience in a sense and trying to force things. That mental hurdle and dealing with that is something that I’ve had to learn to be better with.”

And third-ranked Notre Dame (10-0) is better for it at such a critical juncture.

The Irish take on 12th-ranked Syracuse — a team averaging 44.4 points a game, with five games at 50-plus — Saturday at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Kickoff for the ninth-ever meeting between the two schools and second in Yankee Stadium is 2:30 p.m. EST (NBC-TV).

The Orange bring tempo and a run/pass balance to the offensive party, something they didn’t have in coach Dino Babers’ first two seasons at Syracuse. In 2016, the last time the two teams met, the Orange were 115th in rushing offense.

They were 70th last season, and leaped to 27th heading into Saturday, 15 spots ahead of the Irish.

“The whole change in their ability to sustain their offensive structure is based on running the football,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said. “If they can’t run the football, this team is not 8-2. They can run the football. By being an effective team on the ground, it sets up everything they can do.”

And sets up Notre Dame’s deep and surging defensive line corps as a central story line, as it has been so many times this season, stopping that run and getting pressure on dual-threat senior QB Eric Dungey.

“Pressure is a privilege,” Hayes said. “We just embrace it, and we stick to our process. Hopefully, when we stick to our process and we play the way that we’re capable of playing, the outcome will take care of itself. We really rely on that.”

Hayes tag-teams at the rush end with fellow junior Julian Okwara. Okwara has 34 tackles this season, ranks second on the team in tackles for loss with 9.5, second in sacks with 5.0 and has the school record for QB hurries (21), a stat that wasn’t tracked diligently until 2004.

“We’ve always brought out the best in one another, whether that be in competition or holding each other accountable off the field or on the field,” Hayes said of Okwara. “That’s something that we’ve all really tried to embrace.”

It’s easier to do so now that Hayes is healthy. He suffered a stinger (nerve injury) earlier in the season, Sept. 29 against Stanford. That sidelined him for ND’s 45-23 win at Virginia Tech on Oct. 6 and limited him to third down plays the following week in a 19-14 home escape of Pitt.

Numbness in his thumb was persistent — and scary. It didn’t help the mental funk he was battling.

Coming out of it was a gradual process, Hayes said, and Irish grad assistant Larry Black Jr. was a big part of it.

“I was talking to him a lot and spending a lot of time with him,” Hayes said. “He was just keeping me focused. My family obviously (too), just keeping me focused.

“(Defensive coordinator Clark) Lea says, ‘Iron has to go through fire to become steel.’ Just going through that adversity. It happens. Everybody’s process is different.

“Everybody has their own hurdles that they have to clear. That was something I had to really go through to mature and be the best version of myself ultimately.”

And what does the best version of Daelin Hayes look like?

“Again with expectations. I try to stay away from that,” he said. “I’m just having fun playing the game.”

At last.

Notre Dame’s Daelin Hayes (9) celebrates with Khalid Kareem (53) during ND’s 42-13 victory over Florida State, last Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame defensive end Daelin Hayes (9) levels Vanderbilt’s Cam Johnson (7) during an Irish win, Sept. 15 at Notre Dame Stadium.