When it comes to his philosophical approach on leadership, Casey Hayward believes in letting his play do the talking.
It is also the Vanderbilt cornerback’s answer to last month’s preseason all-Southeastern Conference selections.
Last fall as a junior, Hayward intercepted six passes, which ranked second in the SEC and tied for fifth-most in the country. He also had 17 passes defended, which was tops in the league and third in the nation.
Those numbers garnered national attention as he was named to preseason watch lists for Jim Thorpe (best defensive back), Bronko Nagurski (best defensive player) and Chuck Bednarik (best defensive player) awards. But when league media voted on all-conference selections at last month’s SEC Media Days, he was named to the third-team on defense.
“That was no big deal,” Hayward said. “I don’t look into it. It is just preseason. The main thing is just postseason awards. I am trying to prove people wrong, show them I am better than third team.”
Hayward will try to build his case for a shot in the NFL and that he is capable of becoming one of the SEC’s premier shutdown cornerbacks.
It is quite the transformation considering he was a three-year starter at quarterback for Perry High School in Georgia. He finished his career with 39 touchdown passes and 36 rushing touchdowns.
Still, it was his seal-tight coverage at cornerback caught the eyes of college coaches.
In three college seasons, Hayward has intercepted eight passes and broken up 29 others – mainly against opponents’ top receivers. With a 5-foot-11, 188-pound frame and explosive speed, it doesn’t take him long to make up ground. He has played in all 37 games the last three years, totaling 134 tackles, including a personal best 70 last season, and 10.5 tackles for loss.
“He does have all the talent to be a great one,” first-year cornerbacks coach Wesley McGriff said. “The common denominator with Casey Hayward is he is a playmaker. He can diagnose formations at a moment’s notice. You run the same play at him twice, he’ll get you the second time for certain.”
Hayward, however, said his technique has not always been that good.
That’s where McGriff, a veteran assistant coach of 20 years, stepped in. When he arrived on campus last January from Miami, he realized Hayward could be better if he tweaked a fundamental flaw.
“When you are getting into your stance, you naturally have your shoulder pads over knees and you want to play the entire play with great pad level low,” McGriff said. “At times he keeps his pad level high, which creates his feet to be a half a second slow and then there is that wasted motion. You can’t have any wasted motion when you are transitioning on receivers in this league.
"Playing in the SEC is like being in NASA: You are a second off and you become the Challenger.”
Hayward doesn’t want to his waste his breath worrying about the preseason accolades. Instead, he says he wants to contribute to a secondary that is as deep as any position on the team.
More than anything though, he hopes to end his college career the same way his freshman season finished – in a bowl game.
“It is a very important year,” Hayward said. “I try to lead by example, not a lot of talking. ... I want to try to get this team back to a winning season, a bowl game.”
• Larry Smith remains the frontrunner in the starting quarterback race.
The two-year starter boosted his case during Saturday night’s scrimmage when he completed 10 of 25 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns. One went to Jordan Matthews on a 40-yard connection on third down.
“I think Larry is starting to open the gap a little bit,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “We all have learn to be consistent and be able to sustain it. That is really the test between being a good team and a great team. That is what I think Larry has to do.”
Jordan Rodgers was 8 of 17 for 49 yards and threw two interceptions. Rodgers, a junior college transfer who sat out last year due to a shoulder injury, has not been sharp consistently during fall practices. He underwent surgery on a torn labrum and did not practice in the spring. His first live reps in nearly a year have looked shaky, at times underthrowing his receiver or floating the ball out of reach.
Freshman Josh Grady seems to be holding down the third spot as the dual threat was 4 of 5 for 41 yards. Fellow freshman Kris Kentera completed one of two passes for seven yards. Redshirt-sophomore walk-on John Townsley has also been getting live reps.
Highly touted freshman Lafonte Thourogood, who de-committed from Virginia Tech, has sat out practice recently due to an injury.
“The rest of them, we are still evaluating them,” Franklin said. “It is a work in progress.”
• Wesley Tate has been moved from running back to wide receiver.
Franklin said the switch comes as a result of answering what he believes is a depth issue at wide receiver. He also believes there is plenty of depth at running back, with junior Zac Stacy getting a majority of the carries while junior Warren Norman plays it safe on his surgically repaired right knee. Plus, freshmen Jerron Seymour and Mitchell Hester have impressed Franklin, along with redshirt junior Micah Powell.
Tate, a former Pope John Paul II standout, caught just three passes for 38 yards last year.
But the 6-foot-1, 225-pound redshirt sophomore has shown his versatility so far, providing a big body in the backfield. Tate, whose older brother Golden plays wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, will line up in the slot receiver position.