In a way, it is a sign of respect when a team stops throwing to one side of the field.
Usually it means the defense features a strong “shutdown” cornerback, a player so skilled and such a threat on defense that when the ball is thrown his way, one of two things will likely happen: The pass will be broken up or intercepted.
Such has been the case with Casey Hayward this season.
Prior to Saturday’s game against South Carolina, the Vanderbilt cornerback was second in the Southeastern Conference with eight passes defended — four breakups and four interceptions. His four picks were tied for the most in the league, and he was fourth on the team with 34 tackles.
“You have to come in and prepare every week, regardless of who it is,” Hayward said. “We are playing in the SEC, so we are playing good receivers every week. You just got to come in and prepare every week.”
Hayward, a native of Elko, Ga., faced arguably the SEC’s best receiver earlier this month in Georgia’s A.J. Green. While Hayward and the Vanderbilt defense kept Green under wraps for most of the game, the 6-foot-4, 212-pound wideout broke free for a 48-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter of Georgia’s 43-0 victory.
Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell said he learns a lot about Hayward by the way he responds to plays like that.
“At corner, when you are in a high-pressure situation like that, some people are going to make some plays, and you’ve got to be able to shake it off and come back, and that’s what he can do,” Caldwell said. “You can count on Casey’s best every week. That is what makes him special.”
The 6-foot, 188-pound Hayward is the latest in an emerging line of solid, athletic cornerbacks to come through Vanderbilt.
Myron Lewis had 10 career interceptions during his four years at Vanderbilt. Tampa Bay took him in the third round of this year’s draft, and he played in his first game last week against New Orleans.
From 2006-08, D.J. Moore was electric for the Commodores. He had 13 career interceptions and earned All-American honors as a junior in 2008, recording six interceptions and seven pass break-ups. The Chicago Bears picked him up in the fourth round of the 2009 draft, and he picked off the first two passes of his pro career earlier this season against Dallas.
Hayward, who said he learned a lot from both Moore and Lewis, appears to be on that same path to the NFL. In 31 career games, he has six career interceptions and 100 tackles.
But Hayward, just a junior, said he hasn’t been looking ahead to the possibility of leaving Vanderbilt for the NFL after this season.
“I ain’t really put thought into it,” he said. “I’m just going to worry about this season, just help this team win more games every week.”
And he is going to try to develop as a player, too. While Hayward seems to have a knack for slowing down big-time receivers, the Vanderbilt coaching staff would like to see him swarm to the ball more.
“He has got to be a better player in the run game,” defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant said. “He’s got to be more physical, and he has got to tackle people better.”
Hayward made nine tackles in the loss to Georgia but will have his work cut out for him the rest of the season, with tough games against Arkansas, Florida and Kentucky still on the schedule.
His burgeoning reputation will be on the line, but he said he’s not putting too much stock into it.
“If they want to call me a shutdown corner, I’ll take it,” he said. “I get pumped every week because we are playing a good team every week in the SEC. And we’ve got good players every week. So I get pumped up for every game.”