When the 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive lineman signs his national letter of intent Wednesday morning, he will become only the fourth Badger to have played in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
The game, which has been played four times in the past five years, includes the top 78 high school football players in the country.
"You just saw the best of the best," said Hayden's coach at Arrowhead High School, Tom Taraska, who attended the game in San Antonio, Texas. "They were great, great athletes. So I was really very impressed and it showed what a great job, in all honesty, the Badgers did in recruiting him because Nick had a choice of wherever he basically wanted to go in America. And the Badgers did a great job of being attractive enough to close that door early for him before it really would have became a zoo here."
Hayden, who had more than 50 scholarship offers before committing before Labor Day, thrived at the All-American game. He split time between tight end and defensive line and was ranked the No. 6 defensive lineman and the No. 2 tight end in the country following the contest.
"I was surprised that he played as many plays as a two-way player in a game of that magnitude," Taraska said. "That was definitely very positive. He showed what kind of athlete he was because you've got the country's best athletes and there were some unbelievable athletes down there."
Though Hayden was the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association's Defensive Player of the Year, he first started for the Warhawks at tight end his sophomore year. He was an anchor along the defensive line as a junior and played both ways during Arrowhead's run to the Division 1 state championship game that year. For the first half of his senior year he started on each side of the ball, often flexing between various positions, then settled in primarily on defense.
In the state semifinals against Janesville Parker last fall, though, Hayden played four positions on each side of the ball.
"On defense…he was our rush end, our contain end, our inside tackle and our nose guard," Taraska said. "On offense that day he played tight end, wing back, lead halfback we flexed him out as a split. So he had to know all the responsibilities in those different schemes that day. But people take notice when he's on the field."
Opponents in Wisconsin took notice, frequently shifting their blocking schemes to account for a player who had 21 sacks as junior. Long considered one of the best players in the Midwest, Hayden drew much-deserved national acclaim at the All-American Bowl for his play on each side of the ball, including a six-yard touchdown reception.
"And the pedigree of those kids who played in that All-American game is very special," Taraska said. "You would not believe the athletic ability of some of those kids. I've been in high school coaching 29 years. I never saw so many great athletes ever in one place."
In addition to Hayden, the only All-American Bowl alumni on the Wisconsin roster are defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne, offensive tackle/defensive end Joe Thomas and receiver Ernest Mason. The latter three all played their first seasons at UW, but Taraska hopes that Hayden is given the opportunity to redshirt.
"I hope he redshirts. Just because I think, like anybody, it's quite a jump to go into major college football," Taraska said. "We have a fine football program at Arrowhead, but we're not a Big Ten school. And anybody that comes out of any of those places in high school, it's difficult to make a real measurable difference as a lineman as a freshman….sometimes as a skill kid you have a special skill and they can limit the stuff for you. But as a lineman how do you do that? You are going to get beat on by grown men. I hope in Nick's case he's able to redshirt.
"We've never had that discussion with their staff because—those guys are good friends of mine—but that's not my role to be involved in. They have their needs. But it's such a jump, it really is."
With all four 2003 defensive line starters returning, defensive end Erasmus James' coming back from a medical redshirt, and only one regular contributor, Nick Cochart, departing, it is unlikely that Hayden will be asked to fill in this fall.
"They have got good depth in their line and excellent players developed there," Taraska said.