If there’s any reason for Dayon Hayes to put together a strong junior campaign, making sure to boost his rating in NCAA Football 24 is a good one.
The NIL opportunities afforded to college athletes this season, look no further than the Steel City NIL Club and Alliance 412 for Pitt, has opened the door for ways to profit off personal brands and on-field performances. But it’s also opened the door for the popular NCAA football video games to return for the first time since 2013, and Hayes wants to boost his own rating before that happens next summer.
Hayes, even acknowledging a strong finish to his sophomore campaign, said he’d probably give himself a 75 entering this season. He wants a batter rating, of course, and he’s been watching the veterans in Pitt’s defensive line room to help broaden his own horizons.
In the pursuit of perfection, Hayes has turned to increased time in the film room with defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, and the guys he tends to focus on are Deslin Alexandre, Habakkuk Baldonado and John Morgan — his running mates as Pitt’s starting defensive ends. Partridge said last week that all four have earned starter-level snaps this season.
When it comes to Alexandre, he’s strong. He’s very strong, with an excellent strike. Baldonado is the finesser; he may act like he’s doing one thing, but he’ll switch it up and shock everyone. And Morgan? He’s got it all. “John got it all,” Hayes said. “So, everything John got, I want. John got it all.”
What does Hayes have? According to Morgan, he’s a big, strong kid with bigger, stronger hands.
“Dayon is a heavy-handed guy,” Morgan said. “Sometimes on film, you see he might knock a couple of chin straps back. So, every single play you gotta be looking who’s coming across that ball, who’s coming across that line of scrimmage. He’s teaching us that, getting us in the weight room and making us look big and strong.”
Hayes and Morgan form Pitt’s second pass rushing duo, behind Baldonado and Alexandre, and while the starter status may not be awarded, the pair still made an impact in 2021.
Morgan earned just over 450 snaps, Hayes just over 250, and they combined for 43 tackles (28 solo), 15.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups. And while Hayes played the least of the Baldonado, Alexandre, Morgan and himself quartet, he’s learned so much from just watching the others. That habit of really studying film even helped to earn additional playing time down the stretch.
“I think coach (Charlie) Partridge started to see me develop that seriousness because, at the beginning, I really wasn’t focused,” Hayes said. “My habits weren’t really good. I think at the end of the season, I started locking in on all the little details. More film, more stuff with him, so I think he started to trust me more.”
At the end of the season, but especially before fall camp began this summer, Hayes locked in on his film studies. He watched every game from last season, and in addition to watching his own play, he really studied Baldonado, Alexandre and Morgan. He made sure to study their successes, their failures and everything in between. The next step is the application of what he’s seen, and it doesn’t have to wait until the season.
With the entire starting offensive line from last season returning, along with the top reserves, it’s a veteran unit at Pitt. A veteran unit with aspirations of growing even beyond the notion of being one of the best units in the country. The defensive line room has the same aspirations, and when the two sides meet, it’s almost like two different teams meeting — every single rep.
“It’s back and forth every single day,” Morgan said. “Those guys are some of the best in the country. It’s been some chippy days, comes with the sport, but we’re all friends so at the end of the day, once we leave the field, we’re buddies in the locker room and buddies in the film room.”
With a goal of being the most disruptive defense in college football, building off of the ‘Blitzburgh’ status of leading college football in sacks over the last three seasons to push for the top spot in sacks, tackles for loss and interceptions, having one of the most experienced offensive lines to compete against in practice every day certainly isn’t a problem. With the mob mentality the defense shares, it’s actually a blessing.
“It makes it more fun when you’ve got 11 guys trying to hunt the quarterback, trying to get that ball,” Morgan said. “It makes my job easy.”
Hayes knows he lacks the experience the older guys like Morgan boast from seasons of seasoning, but he’s doing all he can to use his film studies as a platform. If he can get more and more comfortable in the defense, an area he already feels like he’s grown leaps and bounds since the end of last season, the experience gap won’t matter.
It helps to have a coach like Partridge in the room, and it helps that he’s able to build such strong bonds with every single player in the room. Morgan said that Partridge helps each defensive lineman excel because it isn’t a surface-level connection. He’s built legitimate bonds and knows exactly who each lineman is and what exactly they need. “So, one day you might come in and say, “Coach P, I wanna work on this, I wanna work on that.’ He’s gonna base it on what he feels like is your game and how it can benefit you on the field,” Morgan said.
It’s helped Hayes immensely over the last year, especially over the months since the season ended in December. But the defensive line room’s strength doesn’t just come from Partridge, it comes from a culture that builds leaders on and off the field. There’s a standard in the room and on the field that Partridge expects, and it’s an area that Morgan has made sure to embrace to the fullest of his abilities this offseason.
“I’m trying to get to that next level in film work, trying to make sure I’m getting all the guys around me better,” Morgan said. “That’s really the main thing being a fifth-year senior. At this point, my time is coming to an end, so I’ve really gotta make sure the guys behind me are on the same page.
“I said, ‘We need 22 ones. We need 22 guys that can play any moment at the snap of a down.'”
When it comes to Morgan’s own game, he wants to be the jack of all trades — which is certainly how Hayes described him. But he wants to be able to push the limits of his speed, power and vision in games. After a season in which he racked up 6.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, there’s still more meat on the bone. And that can be said for both Morgan and Hayes.
There’s still more meat on the bone for Morgan and Hayes but also Pitt as a whole. An ACC championship felt great, and the feel of the confetti in his hands, Morgan said, cannot be forgotten.
“We’ve been talking about (winning the national championship) since after the season,” Morgan said. “At the end of the day, we got our ACC championship, now we’re looking bigger and better. Coach Mickey (Jacobs) said we felt the way the confetti felt like. We felt it in Charlotte, now we want to feel it in SoFi in Los Angeles.”
In the meantime, it’s “one and oh” every week. There’re short-term, long-term and personal goals, but every week, it’s been ingrained to take it for what it is. The chance to pick up a win. It’s tough to build off a conference championship at the team level, but both Morgan and Hayes have their own individual goals in pursuit of more. More sacks, more tackles for loss, more wins.
“At the end of the day, I want to be in California in January,” Morgan said. “I want to be that No. 1 spot, holding that nice gold trophy. That’s my end goal.”
For a “hometown hero” in Westinghouse’s own Hayes, it’s the chance to prove Pitt made the right choice trusting a kid from its own city. For Morgan, it’s the long road to the top. Maryland’s finest finally taking center stage. Both can return in 2023, but that isn’t the thought process. 2022 is the goal.
And when “When I See U” by Fantasia plays at Acrisure Stadium this fall, perhaps the new song of 2022 for Pitt football, the whole stadium will be singing it. Just as the whole team sang it during warmups earlier this week. It will never replace “Sweet Caroline,” but if Narduzzi can dance to a song like When I See U, that’s how you know Pitt picked the right song.
The defensive line unit gets a lot of attention at Pitt, and with Morgan and Hayes both working every day to elevate to the standard Partridge has set and go beyond, it’s a unit that will not be happy unless every single goal is met.