Jay Hayes is still working on his Mike Elko impression, and his attempt to mimic defensive line coach Mike Elston needs a little work.
The resident life of the party finds himself in a more serious, pensive mood these days as his senior year at Notre Dame awaits him this fall.
Lounging in a chair inside the Isban Auditorium of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Hayes has the hood of his sweatshirt up, fielding questions on behalf of the Irish defensive line now that he has risen to elder statesman status.
It’s Hayes’ time. Finally. Once and for all. No doubt about it, and with two years of eligibility to put behind him three years of relative inactivity.
“You have a different perspective,” said Hayes of his senior status following Notre Dame’s seventh practice of the spring Friday.
“What you do, everybody else is watching. It’s nothing that’s extremely hard, it’s just coming to work every day and crafting it. You have to make sure you’re looking out for the younger guys and give them words of wisdom, and then make sure you’re there with them.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Hayes was the one in need of counsel.
As a freshman in 2014, Hayes was asked to burn a year of eligibility after 10 games of inactivity when Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones both went down with November injuries.
Three games and two tackles later, Hayes was down to three years of collegiate play, but no closer to becoming a mainstay on the Irish defensive front.
When Hayes openly groused via Twitter during his sophomore year as Notre Dame tried to recoup that burned year of eligibility by preserving his 2015 season, Irish head coach Brian Kelly had to intervene to put him in his place and to get his mind right.
The 2016 season figured to offer Hayes a clean slate. He played in 10 games, but didn’t start any of them and, for the most part, remained in the background of Notre Dame’s defensive end play.
His five tackles in back-to-back games against Syracuse and N.C. State represented half of his total for the season.
The proverbial clean slate couldn’t be any cleaner for Hayes than it is this spring. Brian VanGorder is gone. So is defensive line coach Keith Gilmore. Enter defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive line coach Mike Elston, who shifted up front from instructing the linebackers.
Hayes is the starting strongside end for Notre Dame in 2017. Fellow senior Andrew Trumbetti is competing with him at the position, but Trumbetti figures to be a situational, pass-rushing option while Hayes is the “every down” choice three years in the making.
“I’m open to doing whatever the team needs me to do, but I’m comfortable where I’m at now,” Hayes said. “If the team needs me to move inside, I’m comfortable with that as well.
“But I feel like it’s a mismatch with my power and strength going into games (at end). My hand usage is something that is a weapon that I now use for passing situations.”
The Irish need weapons, particularly along a defensive line where the loss of Day, Jones, Romeo Okwara and Isaac Rochell over the past two years has left Notre Dame with a mish-mash of bodies and unproven commodities.
“We’re not trying to look at the bigger picture because when guys do that, they start getting frustrated and they get down on themselves,” said Hayes of the atmosphere that now exists along the defensive line.
“If you come to practice every day and you master these moves and you build the consistency to get playing time, there’s no reason not to have success.”
At a time of year when every team in the country is working on “fundamentals and technique,” Hayes and his fellow defensive brethren are using it as a mantra to erase what happened in 2016.
“When you see your fundamentals and technique paying off, and when you see you’re getting pressure on the quarterback, it shows you that you’re moving in the right direction,” Hayes said.
“As opposed to scheme, scheme, scheme, we’ve focused on fundamentals. Everyone on the team is getting the fundamentals down pat. Once everybody gets the fundamentals down, things should take off.”
The Irish have no option but to live in the present and erase the past. The past – a 4-8 season in 2016 – is an ugly yet motivational reminder of what needs to be the focal point this spring.
“It’s fun because we’ve been waiting a long time to erase the 4-8,” Hayes said. “A lot of guys are trying not to look far down the road, but just going out there and practicing and building the chemistry again. Just competing against the offense is really a great feeling.”
Hayes and his fellow defensive linemen are starting from square one this spring, an approach that is satisfying and cause for optimism after the VanGorder disaster.
“Come every single day and work,” said Hayes of his mindset. “Come every single day and beat your previous self.
“Stop focusing on what other people are thinking about you. Tune out what the media says about you. Tune out what everybody is saying about how you’re not going to be able to do this, you’re not going to be able to do that.”
The Irish need Hayes to be the touchstone of the defensive front. Part-defensive end, part-defensive tackle when he arrived at Notre Dame, the 6-foot-3½, 280-pound red-shirt junior must be a reliable presence from start to finish in 2017 if the Irish are to reverse their 2016 fortunes.
Considered more of a run-stopper and point-of-attack holder than a guy who is suddenly going to jump up and record 10 sacks this fall, Hayes must provide a physical presence as much as anyone along the defensive front.
As Jerry Tillery still decides whether he wants to be a great football player and Daniel Cage attempts to overcome concussion and stamina issues, Hayes must provide a sturdy foundation for the defensive front.
In other words, Notre Dame needs him to be what Rochell was.
“Having a clean slate is a positive,” Hayes said. “I take everything a day at a time now. Every day I come in I’m just focused on what I need to do to get better and focus in on my process.
“The position drills and meeting with the coaches and the coaches emphasizing fundamentals and technique over scheme have been extremely helpful. It leads to more production.”
Hayes knows what bad football looks and feels like.
“When you see teams hurting themselves, it usually comes with technique and not being fundamentally sound,” Hayes said. “It could be argued last year that there were games where we bit ourselves in the foot, and if you look closely, guys weren’t doing X, Y, Z.”
Hayes has bought into Elko’s method of repair.
“I like him,” said Hayes of Elko. “He’s a different type of coach. He really tries to teach the game. It’s very exciting to see a new coach come in and say, ‘Forget about the scheme! Forget about the scheme! I’m going to teach you the game of football! I’m going to teach you how to win on first down!’
“Guys are enjoying it because they’re learning a lot and learning different ways you can take away the football and affect the quarterback, or affect the offense without making a tackle or making an interception.”
When the defensive line isn’t providing the juice, Elston is.
“Coach Elston is a good coach,” Hayes said. “He always brings us energy in the morning and pours a lot into the defensive line. He’s real intense. He’s a helping hand. You can knock on his door and talk to him.”
Soon, the time for talking will be over. Once summer workouts are in the books and August arrives, the burden will be on Hayes’ shoulders to help lead the Irish defense out of the abyss of 2016.
“Everybody is holding each other accountable,” Hayes said. “The coaches have pointed us in the right direction. It’s on the players to get this down and to erase the 4-8.
“There will be 11 of us out there. Now it’s up to the players to fix it.”