Jay Hayes measured his practice performances in decibels.
If Harry Hiestand screamed at Notre Dame’s offensive line, it meant the scout team defensive lineman had a good day. If Brian Kelly couldn’t get the offense to function, the Brooklyn Poly Prep product had scored another victory.
“My goal was to get other players yelled at,” Hayes said. “I enjoyed that.”
Ultimately Hayes played a bigger part than practice antagonist, departing the scout team with two games left in the regular season. At that point Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones had been lost, leaving Kelly with lineup options only rated in their degrees of badness.
Kelly approached Hayes with the idea to play him, rationalizing that shredding a red-shirt in November could make sense if the freshman logged 100 snaps spread among Louisville, USC and the bowl. Then Hayes suffered a high ankle sprain in Los Angeles that made that mark impossible.
Still, Hayes doesn’t consider his freshman season a loss considering it helped him prepare for the first-team work of this spring. With Jones still out following foot surgery and Day limited by knee/hip pain, Notre Dame’s top defensive tackle tandem during spring ball has been Hayes and early enrollee Jerry Tillery.
“We know we’re going against the ones and every time we go we say, ‘You ready? Let’s ball out,’” Hayes said. “It’s a great experience for us because we’re getting quality reps. You’re not getting second-string reps, you’re getting first-team reps.”
Hayes is up 20 pounds from training camp to 285, making him a natural fit on the interior after spending last August at defensive end. Understanding Brian VanGorder’s defense has come slowly with Hayes describing himself as a reliable player part of the time.
Other than the weight, Hayes said his biggest gains came in understanding how to use his hands at the line of scrimmage. Some would argue learning to use his fingers less on Twitter has been just as big.
As a recruit, Hayes de-committed from Notre Dame on Facebook as an April Fool’s joke.
Then last November, Hayes tweeted congratulations to Jones about declaring for the NFL Draft. It took about 10 minutes to diffuse Hayes’ prank as just that. And this time the defensive tackle got yelled at.
“You don’t understand how mad (sports information director) Mike (Bertsch) was,” Hayes said. “‘Jay, you can’t do that. I’m gonna cut your head off.’ I learned from that.
“I got good tweets though.”
Hayes toned it down for April Fool’s this year, only tweeting he’d moved to center.
“You know me and social media,” he said.
That Hayes hasn’t tweeted himself into Kelly’s doghouse is proof of the defensive tackle’s value and evidence of how the staff regards the former four-star prospect.
Hayes committed to Notre Dame during his junior season when Bob Diaco ran the defense. More than a year later and barely a month before National Signing Day, Diaco left for Connecticut. Hayes didn’t look around, putting his faith in Kelly and VanGorder. To date, Hayes believes that faith has come good.
“Coach Kelly and the coaching staff met my expectations,” Hayes said. “They’re honest with you. They coach you up. They’re gonna be hard on you and they’re gonna push you to get better.
“Coach VanGorder is a great coach. He’s trying to really build this culture here of tough ruggedness. That culture is something I want to be a part of, being tough and rugged and pushing through things.”
Hayes said he’s practicing through shoulder and ankle pain while trying to be part of VanGorder’s solution. He believes the taste he got in November and the starting work this spring can help him get there.
“That process is still going on,” Hayes said. “I think I’ve proven a good amount of being a dependable player, but I’m looking to move forward still.”