Over the past 30 years, Shepherd University football fans could count on two things – the Rams would compete for a conference championship and a national playoff berth, while the defensive unit would be one of the best in both the conference and the nation.
Last fall was no exception. Shepherd won its 17th conference championship in the past 32 seasons and made its 12th postseason appearance since 1983. As for the defense, the Rams led NCAA Division II in rushing defense for the third straight year, allowing just 48.3 yards per game, while Shepherd also ranked second in the nation in total defense with 244.8 yards per contest.
One of the keys to the recent success for the Rams defense was Park View High School graduate Robert Hayes. Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 278 pounds, Hayes completed last season as the Defensive Player of the Year in the Mountain East Conference (MEC) and has placed himself in a position to possibly earn a spot on a NFL team this fall.
Hayes admits he has benefitted greatly from the publicity gained by another Shepherd standout, senior defensive end Howard Jones. A native of nearby Woodbridge, Jones earned first-team all-America honors in 2011 and pro scouts started paying more attention to the 6-foot-2, 235-pounder. Even before Jones wowed pro personnel directors with his speed, strength and agility at the NFL Combine in late February, his success allowed Hayes and fellow Ram senior defensive linemen Mike Franklin (6-3, 310) and Xavier Tyler (6-2, 290) to get noticed.
“Howard takes the cake on that,” Hayes said of Jones living up to the hype. “We understand he is probably going to get drafted. It doesn’t hurt our feelings because we try to match his athleticism. That’s what has made us such a great defensive line. We feed off each other and it’s a great feeling to know that each of us has a chance to go to the next level.”
Hayes played immediately as a freshman at Shepherd – nestled along the Potomac River northwest of Harpers Ferry in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia – and contributed seven tackles as he served as a backup on the defensive line. He broke out as a sophomore to start at defensive tackle (taking a starting spot away from Tyler) and recorded a career-high 37 tackles (25 unassisted) with 16 tackles for loss and six quarterback sacks as he earned all-West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WVIAC) second-team honors. A known quantity as a junior, Hayes was a first-team all-conference pick with 30 tackles (18 solo) – nine for loss – and two sacks.
Coming into the 2013 season, there was a three-way battle for who was going to be the two starters at the defensive tackle positions between Hayes, Franklin and Tyler. Ramal Faunteroy, a former Ram standout now serving as the team’s defensive line coach, said all three were playing at a very high level and a decision was made a week before the season opened to put the best players on the field.
That decision moved Hayes to defensive end to take advantage of his athleticism. It paid off as Hayes recorded a career-best 11 sacks among his 24 tackles (19 solo) en route to being named the Defensive Player of the Year in Shepherd’s first season in the newly formed MEC.
“He was excited about the move and ran with it,” Faunteroy said. “I think it was the right decision to have him earn Defensive Player of the Year. He not only pushed himself, he pushed the other guys to work hard and contribute. It was a tight bond with those four and it was nice to see them go out together so strong.”
“It was definitely a surprise,” Hayes said of the Player of the Year award. “With Howard and his statistics the last few years, we all felt he would have a great season, but other teams were focused on stopping him. So someone had to step up and I guess it was me. We all did a good job, but I guess the conference felt I stepped up a little bit more than the others. Beating Howard out for anything, I kind of pat myself on the back. It’s not an ego thing, but an accomplishment as a competitor with him.”
An Indianapolis Colts fan growing up in Sterling, Hayes is thrilled to have the possibility of playing at the professional level. He attended the Beyond Sports Network (BSN) Collegiate Showcase Feb. 26-27 in Chantilly to expose his talents to scouts representing the nine Canadian Football League (CFL) teams, and seven NFL teams – the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and New York Giants – watched Hayes, Franklin, Tyler and other Rams work out April 9 as Shepherd hosted its first-ever “Pro Day.”
“It would mean everything to me,” Hayes said of a pro career. “My mother didn’t let me play football as a kid, but I’ve been dreaming of it ever since I started playing. Coming to high school, it wasn’t really a logical dream, but through the transition of the last few years, it now is a logical dream. I love the game and it’s what I’m good at, so I may as well try to stay in it for as long as possible and see what I can do with it.”
Despite the excitement, Hayes has learned not to expect what might not be possible. Hayes became Shepherd’s first football first-team Academic All-American as he has maintained a grade point average over 3.0 in his major of recreation and leisure studies, so he’s smart enough to realize he may have to utilize an internship with a physical therapy group in Michigan he has set up to complete his degree.
“I’m not going to put all of my eggs in one basket,” Hayes said. “If I did and it doesn’t play out, I’d be heartbroken. I’m just going to keep putting in my hard work and if the call comes, I’ll be ready. Things are looking good right now and there is talk of a position change, so I’m ready for anything.”
Hayes said some pro scouts have suggested a possible move for him to linebacker or even to play at fullback on the offensive side of the ball. Although he played as an interior defensive lineman much of his career, Hayes’ athleticism lead Faunteroy and Shepherd head coach Monte Cater to believe he will not have much problem making an adjustment.
“We had a really good defense and he was able to contribute in more than one position,” Cater said of Hayes. “He’s got some flexibility in that it might be easier for him to play at another position. He probably won’t have his hand on the ground, but he and the others deserve to get the recognition they have earned. We’re excited he has a chance to continue to play after college.”
“Robert is a very special player,” Faunteroy said. “When the coaches get together and talk about if we were to build a prototype of a football player, it would be Robert Hayes. Rarely do you have a guy that fits the mold in all categories. He’s a student of the game and can play all of the positions.
“I just hope he gets an opportunity to get to camp,” Faunteroy added. “If he gets his foot in the door, he’s going to be able to prove some people wrong. He’s a kind of a wild card guy like Lorenzo Alexander [former Washington Redskin, now with the Arizona Cardinals] who played everywhere – defensive end, tackle, middle linebacker, outside linebacker – and I think Hayes is in that mode. I think he can play any linebacker position in the 3-4 set, he could be a fullback or H-back on offense, and he could contribute on special teams. He knows how to use his body, use his hands, and I don’t see him getting completely dominated in any position.”
In the end, Hayes is pleased with his choice to attend Shepherd.
“It has definitely paid off,” Hayes said. “If I had gone to a Division I school, I probably wouldn’t have played as a freshman and maybe not the next year. That gave me a leg up on my competition to be able to exhibit my athleticism as a freshman and beyond. It has gotten me this far today and hopefully the next level is calling.
“I feel truly blessed,” he added. “If I do go to the League, it would be nice to come back and have a hometown welcome. That would be a lot of fun.”