Hayden was supposed to be working alongside fellow sophomore Justin Ostrowski right now. But Ostrowski's injured right knee continues to necessitate a full leg brace, in order to immobilize it. And the Badgers do not have a timeframe for Ostrowski's return.
"I don't know. It's really going to be up to him I guess as far as how he progresses with the injury," defensive line coach John Palermo said. "I'm not counting on him early in the season and hopefully maybe by midseason we might be able to get him back."
Ostrowski played in 11 games as a top reserve defensive tackle last season, recording five tackles. Hayden played in five games, and was in on one tackle.
Said Hayden: "I was scared out of my mind, you know, going in there the first time, looking around… Seriously, last year what I did was just end-of-the-game kind-of-guy. You know, go in when we're beating them. Last year was just good getting the game experience."
So he is not exactly a veteran. However, Hayden has an armload of experience compared to his fellow defensive tackles. In place of Ostrowski, Hayden now looks to his left to see Jason Chapman (6-4, 280) at first-team defensive tackle. Chapman redshirted as a first-year player last year. So did Mike Newkirk (6-3, 256) and Gino Cruse (6-3, 312), the next tackles in line. Defensive end Kurt Ware (6-4, 286) will play tackle in the nickel — he played in one game last year.
"I think whenever you lose an individual like Justin it is hard to replace because of what he brings to the table for us," Palermo said. "His intensity, his love for the game, his team concept. All those things right there are hard to replace."
Hayden's play in practice is making things easier. He is making far more plays than he did in his first fall camp a year ago or in spring practice this year. Now, Hayden is flashing the power and suddenness that made him a prep All-American at Arrowhead High School two years ago.
"He's a much more physical player, a tough kid," Palermo said. "Obviously has some talent as well for a 300-pounder. I've been real pleased with Nick."
"He's making a lot of plays," Palermo said. "He's understanding the concept of fighting pressure and running to the ball and doing things the right way. And I've been very, very pleased with him."
With Ostrowski out, Hayden is the Badgers' best and most experienced defensive tackle. But he does not feel that his spot in the starting lineup is secure.
"Being a No. 1 right now is great but I just got to keep working my butt off and just keep going hard," he said. "It will never be comfortable. I'm still learning. I'm just trying to just get used to everything and just be the best I can be."
Hayden, however, is confident in his role as a leader among the defensive linemen, despite only being in his second year on campus.
"That carries over from high school," he said, "being a leader to the younger kids in high school. I know what to do right now. I know what to do if I did something wrong. Telling them… if they did something wrong, that's fine because I know (that) I should know."
Hayden said that his job on the field remains the same, with or without Ostrowski in the lineup, but off the field he has more responsibility to tutor the younger players, such as true freshmen Dan Cascone and Jeff Stehle.
"Being a leader out there for the younger players like Cascone and Jeff, you've got to step up, do the right things, never quit on a play and show them just the hard work and determination you have so it carries over," Hayden said.
Hayden has also taken Newkirk, who converted from end to tackle this fall, under his wing.
"I've been teaching him what he's been doing right and wrong and he's been catching on fast," Hayden said. "I've got no worries about him."
Despite the leadership niche he has carved, Hayden himself is still a developmental player.
"I think coach (Palermo) has made me a… tougher player," Hayden said. "(I) hit the weights a lot harder this year and got a lot stronger and developed more speed. Just understanding blocks would be the big thing. Getting comboed, how to fight pressure, how to cross-face and stuff like that, how to use my hands."