Emergence: Daelin Hayes finds his place as a playmaker for Notre Dame’s defense
Daniel O'Boyle | Friday, October 20, 2017
In 2015, Daelin Hayes was set to play for USC.
He was set to one day stare down Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush and attempt to sack the Irish signal-caller.
He was set to be teammates with Trojan offensive stars Deontay Burnett, Ronald Jones II and Sam Darnold.
And his favorite college player was Jaylon Smith.
Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith.
He made no secret of it, admitting he loved to watch Smith in an interview while still committed to one of Notre Dame’s biggest rivals.
When the Irish opened the season that year, Hayes would still be committed to the Trojans, but the Irish weren’t done trying to convince him to flip his commitment, and the five-star recruit went to Notre Dame Stadium to watch the Irish open their season against Texas.
In the second quarter, Smith — wearing the number nine — sacked Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes. Smith celebrated the way he had done since his high school days, with a swipe of the turf.
Two years later, Daelin Hayes made his first college start. Not for the Trojans, but for Notre Dame.
Hayes wore Smith’s No. 9. And when he stuffed an Owls run at the line, he took a swipe at the turf.
When asked about the celebration, the 6-foot-3, 258-pound Hayes — the player tasked with striking fear into opposing quarterbacks — doesn’t just laugh. He giggles.
“We talked before that game and he told me to hit the celebration,” Hayes said. “That was just an opportunity to pay homage. He was No. 9 before me, he was a playmaker before me and he kind of was an example of what type of player I wanted to be when I got here, so that was an opportunity to recognize all of that.”
The change, from a Trojans commit to an Irish defensive end taking over Smith’s legacy began over a year after Hayes committed to USC, when the Trojans fired head coach Steve Sarkisian. The Irish persistence in recruiting seemed to have paid off as Hayes decommitted. Smith, in particular, played a major role in trying to bring Hayes to Notre Dame, keeping in regular communication with the prospect.
“Obviously we were never on the team together, but he was a huge influence on me,” Hayes said. “He was like a big brother. We talked a lot before I committed and after I committed.”
But after decommitting from USC, Hayes would continue to keep his recruiting process interesting. After announcing a top three of Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan State, the Michigan native made national waves in the way he committed to the Irish. Hayes starred in a video paying tribute to “The Dark Knight,” running through the streets of Detroit before reaching a Notre Dame billboard.
It takes a certain level of talent to earn the right to announce a commitment in such a dramatic fashion.
It takes a whole different level of talent to do so after a high-school career that saw two season-ending injuries, as well as a junior season cut short when Hayes had to move back to Michigan from California.
Hayes faced that kind of adversity, injuring his left shoulder only four plays into his sophomore season. After moving to the West Coast and back, Hayes shone in the opening two games of the 2015 season for Skyline High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before injuring his right shoulder, ending his high school career, in Week 3 of the season.
But Hayes remained an elite prospect in spite of his injuries. He said he didn’t just succeed in spite of the injuries, but was able to grow as a person and as a player while missing time on the field.
“It was a difficult process, just being young and having the game taken away three consecutive times,” he said. “That hurt at first, but I think it definitely helped me in maturing, understanding everything and not taking the game for granted. This is a great opportunity and every day I say a prayer and say I’m thankful for all of this, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to play and that I hope to continue to play and have this opportunity.”
So when Hayes stepped on the field in 2015, his goals were very different to other five-star prospects like Smith. Hayes didn’t record a single sack or tackle for loss and made just 12 tackles. Apart from a tipped pass in Week 2 against Michigan State that turned into an interception for Devin Studstill, Hayes didn’t seem like a game-changer. But to Hayes, the season was still a huge success, because after his injuries the most important stat for him was the “games played” column. Hayes appeared in every single encounter of the Irish season, giving him the feel for the field that he needed.
“Just playing every game was awesome,” Hayes said. “I think it was huge just having a year of finding my place on the field, of learning and of experience.”
This year, however, Hayes has proven why he was so highly rated to begin with. Hayes has 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks already, including an eight-yard sack of North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt during the last Irish outing in Chapel Hill. Hayes also recovered two fumbles this season: one by Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm to set up the only Irish touchdown in the 20-19 loss to the Bulldogs and one by Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, which the Irish offense again turned into a touchdown on the way to a 38-18 victory.
“It definitely feels really good now to start and really impact games,” Hayes said. “Experience and staying healthy have been big in letting that happen, and then preparation. Off the field preparation has been a really big help for me in making this step up.”
Hayes’s personal improvement has among the most notable changes on a defensive line — and a defense as a whole — that has vastly exceeded expectations in 2017. Expected to struggle after a poor 2016 and the losses of players such as Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, the Irish defensive line has instead looked like one of the top units in the nation, as the Irish have given up only 16.8 points per game and just 3.7 yards per rushing play.
“It speaks volumes to the type of guys we have in the room and the mindset all of these guys have, players and coaches,” Hayes said. “Everyone has a mindset to get better, and I think that really shows. The guys really took all of that to heart this offseason and really embraced it, and now we’re seeing the fruits of that.”
But now, Hayes faces his biggest test yet: the Trojans team he committed to as a high school sophomore, led by likely NFL first-round quarterback Sam Darnold. But Hayes says his focus isn’t on the players he knew that he’ll have to go up against, and it’s not on the reputation of the player he’s trying to bring down. It’s just on playing his own game the way he has every other game this season.
“It’s cool to get the opportunity to play them, but at the end of the day we’ve got to play our own game — we just focus on what we’re doing and we know that everything else will take care of itself,” Hayes said. “That’s not really a thought that comes into my mind. It’s just like any other opponent, we just want to play our own game every week. I’m just thinking about preparing to kick their butts.”