There’s not a lot of time away from football activities for a college football player, especially one whose team earns a postseason bowl invitation. Heflin’s Rocky Hayes falls into that category. Hayes and his Arkansas State teammates have an appointment with Ball State on Sunday in Mobile’s GoDaddy.com Bowl. For those who can’t make the trip to Mobile’s Ladd-Peebles Stadium to see the former Cleburne County High School star in person, ESPN will televise the game beginning at 8 p.m.
The bowl commitment left Hayes with a short Christmas vacation. He got home the Friday before Christmas and left the Friday after to return to Jonesboro. 2013 has been a productive season for Hayes, even though he moved from offense to defense when Gus Malzahn left Jonesboro for Auburn and Bryan Harsin became head man for the Red Wolves.
“We were kind of short at the corner position in the spring. Coach Harsin shot me a text one day and called me in for a meeting. I had to go to his office and he just let me know that he needed me on the defensive side of the ball,” Hayes recalled during his visit home. “He felt that was where I could help the team the most at the moment. He asked me if I felt I could do it.”
“Definitely, it isn’t going to be a problem,” was Hayes’ reply.
The remainder of the spring and over the summer he was fully committed to defense. He helped Arkansas State to a 7-5 overall record and a 5-2 Sun Belt Conference mark. Non-conference losses came to SEC members Auburn and Missouri and finally to Memphis. In conference play, Louisiana-Lafayette and Western Kentucky edged Arkansas State.
Hayes said the change from offense to defense was challenging. Playing cornerback at Cleburne County helped but not until his new position coach taught him the proper way to view film with a defensive mindset did he really become comfortable with the change. Because he had watched film with Malzahn strictly from an offensive perspective as a freshman his mind continued to drift toward offense as a sophomore.
“When I actually sat down with my DB coach with him teaching me how to actually watch film from the corner position, the game changed for me. It just slows down. You see things that you really never saw even though your eyes are where they’re supposed to be,” he said, adding that he considered adding that skill his personal highlight of the season.
“I was pleased with how I played for the second half of the season more than anything,” Hayes added. “The first half of the season, it was really more my transition period. I really didn’t make the plays I wanted to make.”
Whether he made all the plays the wanted to make, Hayes made enough to earn second-team All-Sun Belt Conference honors as a sophomore playing a new position – quite an accomplishment.
The first half of his season included a diving interception late in the game deep in Arkansas State territory that led to the go-ahead touchdown in his team’s 41-34 win over conference rival Troy. His second interception came in a 48-24 win over Idaho and he returned it more than 40 yards. He got his third pick of the year in the loss to Louisiana-Lafayette. Overall, his three interceptions led the team and his interceptions plus 10 pass breakups gave him a team-best 13 passes defended.
Hayes had six solo tackles, his biggest number of the year, in the Red Wolves’ season finale against Western Kentucky but that’s not what he remembers about the game.
“Western Kentucky’s last drive, they took it 99 yards and they beat us. I’ll never forget that,” he said.
The Hilltoppers needed 16 plays to get the job done and scored with 10 seconds left in the game. The 34-31 loss kept Arkansas State from winning the conference championship outright rather than sharing it.
Although Harsin coached Arkansas State to bowl eligibility, defensive coordinator John Thompson will be interim head coach in Mobile. Harsin left Jonesboro for Boise State when Chris Petersen left Boise for the Washington Huskies after Steve Sarkisian left Washington for the Southern Cal Trojans. You get the idea.
“I’ve never had to experience anything like it,” Hayes said of the coaching turnover each of his two seasons at A-State. “It helps when you’re winning. (Winning) helps your team stay together. We’ve all embraced it. We don’t feel negative about it. There’s a lot of positive energy always around the facility.”
This year’s trip to Mobile and the GoDaddy.com Bowl is the third in a row for the Red Wolves. Last year, Arkansas State defeated Kent State. This year, A-State faces the 10-2 Ball State Cardinals – a team that has regularly put the ball in the air 40 to 50 times a game.
“Looking at them on film, they’re pretty good. They’re explosive. Their offense is very explosive so it should be a fun game to watch. … It’s going to be a fun game to play, on a big stage. That’s when it’s the best so we’re all looking forward to it,” Hayes said.
After the Ball State game, he’ll return to Heflin with his parents for his longest break of the year. School doesn’t begin again until January 24. January 24 will also be new Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson’s first day on the job. Anderson comes to Jonesboro after serving as offensive coordinator at North Carolina in 2012 and 2013. He had the same role at Southern Mississippi the previous two seasons.
Hayes was a part of Anderson’s introductory press conference just before starting his Christmas break.
“I met him and his family. We talked football a little bit but it wasn’t too much. It was more of a personal level. He asked me about my parents, everyone in my family. He knew who I was. He told me he had plans for me on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball so we’ll see what happens,” Hayes said.
“I got a good vibe just because I felt like he was actually trying to get a personal relationship with me,” Hayes added later. “When you’ve got a personal relationship with your head coach, that’s always a good thing."