Evidence that Jay Hayes grew up showed in a weird way last weekend.
It flashed during his 25 real defensive snaps against Syracuse, part of Notre Dame’s defensive solution that held the Orange to 165 yards and a cosmetic touchdown during the second half of a 50-33 win. But it shined when the junior defensive end watched from the MetLife Stadium sidelines.
A game that used to get fuel from personal slights now got juice from successes happening right in front of him.
“Whatever role I have, that’s my role,” Hayes said. “There’s a lot of positivity going around.”
Hayes felt few good vibes the past two years. Openly frustrated as a freshman before burning his red shirt for two-and-a-half games, Hayes sat out all last season to reclaim that lost year. He kept to himself all fall and admits his academics slipped. It took a village to get Hayes back on track, ranging from cornerback Shaun Crawford to strength coach Paul Longo.
Notre Dame saw its next Kapron Lewis-Moore, a slow cooking jumbo end with NFL potential. Hayes didn’t see anything, overwhelmed by the frustration of not playing.
No more, a good sign considering the Irish need Hayes to play a key role the rest of the season regardless of defensive formation. A player recruited to play defensive end in a 3-4 has since played defensive tackle and defensive end in 4-3. He doesn’t care where that leads as long as it leads somewhere.
“I feel like I’ve grown so much,” Hayes said. “I can’t be selfish, I have to help my teammates out. I have to encourage them. I have to be on lookout when they’re on the field and correcting what they’re doing. The best thing that I can do is let them know that I’m there for them.
“Let them know that I’m watching them every series that I’m out and let them know that I’m gonna hold them accountable. If you’re out there jogging, you’re getting cursed out.”
Hayes can deliver that with a personality that offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey describes as “infectious” and a skill set Brian Kelly basically begged Brian VanGorder to play more. Now, with Isaac Rochell gone after this season, Hayes could develop into a two-year starter at strong side end with Daelin Hayes opposite him.
At a position Notre Dame has struggled to recruit, that’s a solid combination.
“Guys love Jay. He's funny. He brings a lot of life to our football team,” McGlinchey said. “And he's the same way on the field. He plays very, very hard. He's a big guy, he rushes hard and he gives guys some fits up front and he'll continue to get better and we need him to continue to get better.”
Last weekend Hayes had his mother in the crowd for just the second time in his Notre Dame career since he got into the lineup. He hadn’t seen her since May when he went home to New York on summer break. He might see more of her now.
“We had a policy where she couldn’t really come to any games unless I played,” Hayes said. “That was a motivation for me too to really get out on field too.”
Now it’s happening. Notre Dame’s defense gets a different look with Hayes in the lineup. And the Hayes that’s playing now is a different version of the four-star prospect the Irish signed in the first place.
That’s a positive development all the way around.