ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Daelin Hayes walked away from the table after his commitment press conference and fielded even more questions.
When did he know it would be Notre Dame? Who does he plan to start recruiting? How is recovery coming after another shoulder injury cost him most of the season? Hayes answered them all in turn with typical aplomb.
Then one question forced the four-star linebacker to stop and measure his words:
“Were there moments, even as a USC commitment, where you thought Notre Dame was probably the spot but you didn’t know exactly what to do about it?”
“That’s an interesting question,” Hayes said, while mulling over what to say next.
He then went on to explain how visiting South Bend for the season opener against Texas started to reveal the depth of his feelings for Notre Dame.
Unrest at USC in the form of Steve Sarkisian being let go as head coach eventually opened the door, but a pause in answering that question revealed something many observers had come to believe for months, even years: Hayes would end up at Notre Dame eventually, even if he didn’t know it yet.
Two summers ago Hayes showed up in South Bend ready to compete at the Irish Invasion for a scholarship offer. It’s not like he needed more attention. Despite the fact his sophomore season at St. Mary’s High School in Orchard Lake, Mich., ended after one game due to a shoulder injury, Hayes arrived in South Bend that June night with an offer list pushing double digits.
Hayes competed under the lights, impressing defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and mixing with former five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith.
“I walked over to get water,” Hayes told Irish Illustrated afterward, “and coach VanGorder was like, ‘We can't let you leave without an offer. I wanna coach you. You’re offered from Notre Dame.’”
Afterward, Hayes privately installed the Irish as his leader. That changed quickly.
Little over a month later, Hayes visited USC. He committed before leaving campus then later moved to Los Angeles with his mother. Hayes started his junior season at St. Bonaventure, where he played three games before heading back to Michigan as a custody battle ensued.
Hayes enrolled at Cass Tech, but couldn’t suit up for the traditional Michigan powerhouse for transfer eligibility reasons.
Cass Tech didn’t get to reap the rewards of having Hayes in its program. He eventually settled in Ann Arbor and at Skyline High, a football program that got its start in 2010. Its record the season before Hayes transferred in? Zero wins, nine losses.
“We’re a brand new program that’s fledgling,” Skyline head coach Chanterius Brock said. “Ultimately, we’re searching to build a culture, build some credibility, build a profile. He added to all of those endeavors. That’s besides what he brings as a football player. I told him when he first came here, good players are good themselves. Great players make other people great. He took that challenge on and he changed the environment. He helped change an already changing environment. We were already headed in the right direction but I do believe he accelerated our process.”
Skyline went 4-5 this season despite losing Hayes after three games to another shoulder injury. He had his labrum surgically repaired Nov. 17.
Throughout the various moves and different high schools, Hayes maintained his USC commitment. But the Irish kept up with their communication throughout the process with defensive line coach Keith Gilmore the primary recruiter.
Hayes remained coy on the possibility of more visits before heading to Notre Dame for the season-opener against Texas. He tried to keep a low profile during that visit.
“You just wanna be respectful,” Hayes said. “Through this process it can get grimy and whatnot. I tried to keep it as clean as possible. I tried to keep it as clean as possible and that’s why I did what I did.”
Less than a month later, Hayes formally de-committed from USC. He visited Notre Dame days later for its game against those Trojans, snapping selfies with fans and hanging out with Irish commitments along the way.
Few doubted the Irish would ultimately get this commitment, despite overtures from and visits to Michigan State and Ohio State.
Hayes isn’t the same prospect Notre Dame offered two summers ago. He’s even further from the player that emerged on the recruiting scene as a lanky sophomore from Orchard Lake that played on both sides of the ball.
“He was a 210-pound tailback back then,” said Scout.com Midwest recruiting manager Allen Trieu. “He’s grown into a defensive player. He’s gone out and camped against the best in the country. But mostly, I think he’s changed physically. He’s added all that weight and defined his position more. Back then, I was still wondering what he would play and how he would translate to the next level. It’s become more clear since then that he’s a hybrid linebacker.”
There’s also been clarity about where Hayes will apply those skills.
After the announcement, Hayes revealed he had known for about a week. He informed Notre Dame on Wednesday. But really, he might have always known, even if only in brief moments along the way.
“I felt like Notre Dame, in my heart I felt like that was where I needed to be,” Hayes said. “I’m just glad, blessed to have the opportunity to go back and be a part of the Fighting Irish.”