Hayes is a bit of an outlier in the “Now Or Never” series. I don’t ever see him losing his job, at least not permanently. But, from an expectations standpoint, 2019 is likely the season when we find out if he will be what he was billed as, a game wrecker at defensive end, or just a solid, but unspectacular defensive line player. And for the record, there is no shame in that. The expectations placed upon him are not his problem and Notre Dame needs solid players on the defensive line, always.
He was, however, a five star player on Rivals, and his role on the field is to cause lots of problems for the opponent, specifically their quarterback. And while we’ve seen some of that over this first two seasons, we haven’t seen nearly enough. Through two seasons, Hayes has registered three sacks, and four quarterback hurries, all coming in 2017.
Notre Dame took big steps in 2017 in improving their defense. They cleaned up the big plays, they were stout against the run, and they made more plays on the back end, at least at corner. The next step is a robust pass rush without the need to bring blitzes. All defenses are going to bring blitzes and will employ them as part of their strategy to pressure the passer. But, the great defenses can apply that pressure rushing four, leaving seven to defend in the back. Hayes is a big key to that growth.
Reasons For Optimism
For a junior in college, Hayes is still a relatively green player. Due to injuries and transfer complications, Hayes did not play a ton football in high school. His high recruiting ratings were in large part because of his physical attributes and his strong performances at the preseason camps. He was a 230 pound linebacker covering tight ends and running backs with ease. The recruiting services love physical freaks.
Given his lack of time on the field, it makes sense for his pass rushing technique would lag behind the rest of his game. Especially when, as has been mentioned with two other defensive players in this series–Asmar Bilal and Jalen Elliott–Hayes arrived during the 2016 season, when not many players were being developed at all on defense. The unit was getting by largely on physical ability and thats it. Not ideal for a player who needed to grow his game through technique.
The best thing about Hayes is his coachability. This shows up in how much he has grown the non-pass rush aspects of his play. He holds up well at the point of attack against the run, usually against much bigger players, and has shown great discipline holding the edge and not trying to make a play that isn’t there for him to make. He has also been effective dropping in coverage, something people saw from him as a high school player.
Why does this give me optimism for him as a rusher? Because it shows buy-in. He could have gone in the tank when his preferred skill was slow to develop. He understood he needed to be an all-around player, and was willing for the less glamorous aspects of the game to come first. The last step is becoming a dominant rusher, and his labor in those other areas shows he’s willing to work for it. Then, it comes down to physical tools, and we know Hayes has those.
Reasons For Pessimism
While I’m willing to believe in Hayes and his fortitude to grow his game, it is discouraging that he did not grow over the course of the season in 2017. He was more of an impact player early in the year, and his play really leveled off in the last month. And the culprit isn’t wear and tear, as his position routinely rotated in other players. He didn’t play that many snaps. Whatever the reason, he wasn’t playing his best ball to end the year.
He also didn’t have what amounted to a break out game. Something like the Romeo Okwara breakout at the end of 2015 against Pittsburgh and Wake Forest. Then it would be a matter of building consistency. A break through as a rusher would come somewhat out of nowhere. Could happen, but it leaves some doubt.
I don’t want to fill this space with a bunch of non-sense, there is more to be optimistic about than pessimistic. The big concern for Hayes is essentially that it hasn’t happened yet. Which is why this is being written. If it doesn’t happen for Hayes in 2018, it’s reasonable to believe it won’t at all. But, I believe in the player, and I think 2018 will be a big year for him.