That's because Hayes missed significant portions of the 2007 and 2008 seasons with ACL injuries in his right and left knee, respectively. And by his estimation, the rush end did not round back into top form until midway through the 2009 campaign, which turned out to be his fifth and final year of eligibility with the Nittany Lions.
If I could change the injuries, I would, Hayes said. But everything else went according to plan. It was the best five years of my life.
That plan, developed when he signed with Penn State in February of 2005 after an All-America prep career, included earning his degree and helping to put the Nittany Lion football program back on the map. With a diploma (journalism) in his pocket and PSU fresh off its fifth bowl appearance (including four wins) in Hayes' half decade on campus, those two missions have been accomplished.
And so Hayes, who could have petitioned the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility due to medical hardship, has decided instead to move on to the next challenge.
Ultimately, it came down to being at Penn State for five years and seeing what I've seen and going what I've gone through, Hayes said. I know in the game of football, an injury or bad things can happen at a moment's notice. I feel I'm prepared for the NFL -- Penn State did a good job of getting me ready physically -- and my family and I just felt it was the right time.
Hayes is taking a realistic approach to this process, and joked that he is just trying to find out what the interest is like for a fifth-year guy with two ACL injuries. He also had a lighthearted response when asked about hiring an agent, something he hopes to have wrapped up in the next few days. Noting that agents typically send draft-eligible clients to work with specific trainers in different areas of the country, Hayes said, I'd like to go somewhere out of the freezing cold, if possible. But beggars can't be choosy.
On a more serious note, Hayes explained he is just looking for an opportunity and that he is very confident he'll get it.
For me, I know I'm not going to be a first-day draft pick, he said. Right now, I see myself as a rookie free-agent type. But I'm OK with that. I'm OK with having it in my hands. It's up to me to prove to people that I can stay healthy and I do have the ability to play linebacker at the next level.
Since the Lions were stacked at linebacker throughout his career, featuring players like Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor, Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman, Hayes spent most of his time in Happy Valley as a rush end. But he knows that won't work in the NFL.
His best chance to impress the pro scouts will likely come at the NFL Pro Day at Penn State, which is scheduled for March 17.
I'm going to go out as a linebacker and see what happens, the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder said. Special teams are also something I'm going to stress in my meetings with NFL personnel types.
If anyone asks for references, Hayes believes he has one of the best in PSU coach Joe Paterno.
He told me he supports me, Hayes said. He said he was proud of me and he would do anything he could to help me anytime, and if I needed him for anything just to call. That really helped me to know I have the support of a guy who has so much weight on his shoulders.
I'm glad I had an opportunity to be coached by him, Hayes added. I'm looking forward to picking up the phone one day and giving him a call and letting him know an NFL team has given me an opportunity.
Hayes also looks forward to sharing that news with another very important man in his life, albeit someone who is just slightly younger than the 83-year-old Paterno. Hayes' son, 19-month-old L.J. (for Little Jerome), was definitely a factor in my decision.
Hayes went on to say, I won't say he was a main factor, because I have received a tremendous amount of support from my family and I don't think we would have been in need of anything. But it comes to the point where I'm 23 years old, have been in college five years, and I'm just looking forward to moving on and being with him every day.
But being with L.J. every day will have to wait just a bit longer.
I'm going to give the next two months of my life 100 percent toward the NFL and hopefully getting an opportunity somewhere, Hayes said. But I have my degree so I'm prepared for my life after football. I'm not sure what career I'll want to delve into at the moment, though, because for the foreseeable future it's all about football.