Commentary

Ingram inspires Hayes to follow dream

Updated: June 3, 2010, 10:12 AM ET
By Steve Wiltfong | Special to ESPN.com

When Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram had just one year of high school football left, Grand Blanc (Mich.) High head coach Joe Delaney had his eyes peeled for a possible replacement.

At a middle school basketball game roughly four years ago, Delaney thought he might have found his guy.

Hayes
Justice Hayes After replacing Mark Ingram, Justice Hayes stepped up and became a star himself.

Sitting in the stands watching Grand Blanc East take on Grand Blanc West, Delaney was impressed with young Justice Hayes' ability to go anywhere he wanted on the court.

"I noticed this kid, he had these moves, and he sliced through the [lane] pretty well," Delaney said. "I asked one of my assistant coaches who happened to be coaching the East team about the kid from the West, and I said he might be our next great running back."

Delaney certainly had a great one in Ingram, but he couldn't keep from imagining the possibilities of having Hayes in his offense. He ended up being dead-on in envisioning Hayes' future.

"He hasn't disappointed," Delaney said.

Four years later, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Hayes is one of the most sought-after recruiting targets in the Midwest. Iowa, Michigan, Notre Dame and Tennessee make up the four-star prospect's top four, with Michigan State and Northwestern still strongly in the mix.

Even though Ingram transferred to Southwestern Academy in nearby Flint for his senior year, Delaney didn't promote Hayes to the varsity until his sophomore season.

"He was pretty good, but I didn't want to push the issue," Delaney said. "After watching him between his freshman and sophomore years develop, I saw he had the ability to play varsity and do some good things."

In middle school, Hayes had obviously heard of Ingram. When Hayes finally met him, he was surprised to find out that Ingram had caught wind of him as well.

"I saw him and he introduced himself and said that he heard good things about me," Hayes began.

"It was amazing. I wouldn't say he was getting highly recruited, but he was getting recruited at that time. He didn't get the attention he deserved until he was leaving, but a football player that I knew was going D-1 gave me hope that I could play on the next level. He definitely encouraged me."

Hayes still thought he was a basketball player at the time, but it didn't take him long to realize his sport was football. Seeing Ingram's success fueled the fire.

"He's like an older brother to me," Hayes said of the Alabama standout. "I saw how hard he worked. Before he was a Heisman Trophy winner, he was in Grand Blanc telling me to keep my head up right before I started playing varsity. He told me to do my best and he said I could be an impact player when I get older. Now he's a Heisman Trophy winner, and he texts me to stay humble and be smart with the recruiting process."

As a sophomore, Hayes rushed for 1,122 yards and 10 touchdowns, while adding 22 receptions for 239 yards. Last fall, Hayes emerged as a national recruit, rushing for 1,295 yards and 15 scores, while catching 19 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Stanford and UCLA could be the next two programs to offer, and Hayes says he'll consider each Pac-10 school and any other institution that might be a good fit if they extend a scholarship.

"The way he starts and stops is phenomenal," said Delaney, who has been at Grand Blanc for 18 seasons. "He makes people miss with that side-to-side stuff, and he goes from stop to full speed very quickly. But probably the best thing is his hands out of the backfield. He catches the ball better than any kid I've ever had out of the backfield, and that includes Mark Ingram, who had great hands. Justice runs great routes out of the backfield, and hardly ever drops the ball."

This past season, Delaney noticed a change in Hayes' approach to the game. Hayes chalks it up to knowing it was his time.

"The biggest thing I like is the way he competes," Delaney said. "He has grown so much in the last year and a half with the competitive aspect. He wants to beat people. He wants to work harder than other people so he can be the best. I started letting the college coaches I know that they had to keep an eye on him because something happened to him and he stepped it up a few notches."

Hayes quit playing basketball after his freshman season to focus on the gridiron.

"I felt that I was a D-1 prospect," Hayes said. "That's when it clicked to start working harder. That I could possibly play college football one day, it didn't take me long to make that transition."

As soon as Chuck Martin left his head-coaching position at Grand Valley State following the season for a job as an assistant under Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, it didn't take him long to get in touch with Delaney about Hayes.

"As soon as Chuck got that job, I don't know how many hours he was on the job, but he was quickly on the phone with me talking about Justice," Delaney said. "We have a lot of respect here for Chuck and certainly the job Coach Kelly did at Central Michigan and Grand Valley before that, and certainly at Cincinnati, and we thought this kid might fit perfectly in his program."

Hayes too is now thinking he might fit perfectly at Notre Dame. He visited the Irish campus in March for junior day and says he'll definitely be back in South Bend, Ind., for a game this fall.

"Notre Dame, great offense, great coach," Hayes said. "Coach Kelly has had nothing but success his whole coaching career. Notre Dame is just a big-time stage. That's where you go if you want to be the best and be known. Notre Dame has one of the best programs in the nation. The exposure is there, and that's the place to be if that's what you want."

Hayes feels Michigan provides the same type of exposure.

"They've struggled the past two years, but they're still that big-time team. If you really think about it, you see everyone is talking about Michigan even though they haven't been playing well. When a team is doing bad, they don't usually talk about them anymore. With Michigan, people find a reason to talk about them. They're still a big-name college. They're kind of down right now, but I think they can pick it up this year. I'm going to take my decision into the season so I can see them play a couple games, not only Michigan, but definitely Notre Dame and hopefully Tennessee."

Ingram's success at Alabama has Hayes thinking he could do the same thing in the same conference at Tennessee.

"I was waiting for an SEC offer and it came from Tennessee. They've had the success in the past and I think they can contend for a good season. They've produced some good NFL prospects, and I feel if I go down there, I think I can make an impact like Mark Ingram did in the SEC."

Hayes has also noticed all the great running backs head coach Kirk Ferentz has produced at Iowa.

"I have great connections there," Hayes said. "My cousin [Roy Marble Jr.] is leaving for there next week on a basketball scholarship. When I'm there, I feel like I'm at home. It's kind of far, but it feels like home. Great football program, great academics. Iowa is a great school to be at for me because I have those connections there."

Now it's about finding out where he connects the best.

"I want to feel comfortable wherever I'm at," Hayes said. "I want to be there all four years, and everything has to be perfect for me. Whatever feels right, that's how I'm going to make my decision."

Meanwhile, Delaney keeps his eyes peeled for the next great Grand Blanc running back.

Steve Wiltfong is a writer for ESPN affiliate and Notre Dame fan site IrishSportsDaily.com.