Before he was fist-pumping in the end zone for scoring a 75-yard interception return last week, senior corner D.J. Hayden was thinking of ways to make a big play.
“They were running hitches all game. I told Zach (McMillian) if they do another hitch, I’m going to jump it,” Hayden said. “I looked at the quarterback the whole time. He was about to throw the hitch. I caught it and took it to the house.”
Though the Cougars lost the game 72-42, Hayden’s interception gave them a chance, cutting a 24-point SMU lead to 17. Hayden said he knew the team needed energy.
Hayden’s size allows him to make plays, said defensive backs assistant coach Zac Spavital.
“He’s a big physical guy, so when teams want to isolate receivers we can put him on that receiver and we can match him up one to one. He has the ability to cover guys up and he’s big and strong, so he can go up against the small guys and he can go up against the big guys,” Spavital said.
Since transferring from Navarro Junior College last year, Hayden caused 10 turnovers.
Hayden is on pace to intercept more passes this season. Throughout the past seven games, Hayden had two interceptions. Last season, he had two interceptions and forced five fumbles, including one in each team’s final five games.
Schematically, Hayden and junior corner Zachary McMillian’s ability to play man-to-man allows the defense to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and stop the running game by putting an extra safety in the box, Spavital said.
Against Louisiana Tech, Hayden locked up against Quinton Patton — who has nine touchdowns this season and was named to the 2011 Biletnikoff Award Watch List — to four catches for 36 yards. North Texas receiver Brelan Chancellor averaged 20 yards per reception. Hayden held him to four catches for 44 yards.
“It allows us to put another guy in a box of safety and be able to help us stop the run a little bit just knowing that we have guys on the outside that can man-up receivers without any help from the top,” Spavital said.
Hayden said he hopes his impact at UH extends longer than his two-year tenure. Though he said he’s not perfect, he tries to influence younger players in the secondary like McMillian and freshman safety Trevon Stewart.
“They look at me almost like their role model. I make mistakes too just like they will,” Hayden said. “I try to help them as much as I can on and off the field. I just try to be a big brother.”