ATHENS — It was hot, it was humid, the opponent was overmatched and the personnel was ever-changing. But don’t bother bringing up all those negatives about Georgia’s opener against Austin Peay to Jay Hayes.
The first-year transfer from Notre Dame loved every minute of it.
“It was awesome,” said Hayes, who entered UGA as a graduate transfer early this summer. “It was great to get in the game and play with the guys and suit up in a Georgia uniform. We’ve been putting in work all summer for this moment, so just to come out and display what we’ve been working on is an awesome feeling.”
Hayes has been through a few season openers already in his career. The 6-foot-3, 289-pound defensive lineman from Brooklyn, N.Y., was redshirted his first season at Notre Dame, then toiled through two seasons as a backup before emerging as a starter last season.
The Bulldogs should remember Hayes well from last year’s trip to South Bend. Hayes tied for his team’s lead with 7 tackles as the Figthing Irish came up short in a 20-19 loss to Georgia.
But that night left an indelible mark on Hayes. When he made the decision late last spring to continue his career elsewhere, he recalled the scene that night in South Bend and all those Georgia fans who made up half the crowd in 80,000-seat Notre Dame Stadium. Later, Hayes found himself rooting for the Bulldogs when they showed up in the College Football Playoffs and traded blows with Alabama in the National Championship Game.
“It was cool just to see all the fans and all the support,” Hayes said. “You just appreciate that as a player.”
Hayes was an important addition to Georgia’s defensive line rotation. Not only did the Bulldogs get an experienced player, but one with a lot of versatility and football intelligence. As a result they’ve been able to utilize him as both a defensive end and tackle.
Hayes wasn’t credited with any stats while getting only a handful of snaps in the 45-0 win over Austin Peay. But he anticipates having plenty of opportunities to make an impact for the Bulldogs this season.
“My role is to just go in there wherever they put me and provide spark, provide energy,” Hayes said, who had 27 tackles while starting all 13 games for Notre Dame last year. “I’m there to rush the passer and to stop the run, that’s basically it. I try to play my role, do my job and make plays.”
Such an attitude has been a hit with Hayes’ new Georgia teammates.
“I just remember his leadership,” junior J.R. Reed said of his first impressions of Hayes. “He came in ready to work. He wasn’t like a younger guy where he’s falling behind and standing in the back of the line. He stood in the front of the line and took charge.”
Of course, they did have to razz just Hayes just a bit about what happened last September at Notre Dame.
“He’s caught a little grief about the game and how everything went,” Reed said with a smile. “He talked about the way a couple of plays went here and there, that they thought they had us. He’s a good guy.”
Hayes’ journey to Notre Dame and then Georgia is a remarkable one that includes triumphs over many tragedies. He was the subject of a DawgNation profile earlier this summer that detailed all the obstacles he’s had to overcome.
But it’s not about the past for Hayes any more. It’s about the here and now and the future.
At present, he’s loving everything he’s learning about UGA.
“The Dawg Walk was awesome,” he said. “The locker room is pretty awesome, too. The weather wasn’t too bad. We prepared for it.”
It’s official: Hayes is all Dawg now.