As a high school junior, Kaleb Hayes was named the San Andreas League’s offensive player of the year.
A year later, he guided San Gorgonio High to its first state football title.
Hayes, a quarterback, had a combined 5,749 total yards over those two seasons. He passed for 3,139 yards with 30 touchdowns and rushed for 2,610 and 34 scores.
But Hayes knew he likely wouldn’t play that position in college, and when Oregon State showed interest it was in having him play in the defensive backfield.
While Hayes may have expected the move, he described it as “sweet and sour.”
“I had played quarterback throughout high school but my talents, my attributes and my abilities, I knew I was probably going to play a different position,” he said last week. “As time went on I started to really like playing DB and that’s probably just because of the competition.”
It was quite the adjustment for Hayes, listed at six foot and 184 pounds on the training camp roster. He redshirted in 2017 as he began to learn the new position, then found himself in the starting lineup for the season opener at Ohio State last season.
Hayes played in all 12 games last season, making nine starts. He was fifth on the team with 44 tackles and had a team-best eight pass breakups.
The on-the-job training was tough at times, but Hayes said he grew a lot in his knowledge of the position and his overall football IQ.
“Through each game I learned something new about the position I had never played before,” he said. “I learned how to communicate with my teammates and how it actually works.”
Hayes said his biggest areas of improvement from the start of last season came in backpedaling, press coverage and “just knowing my assignments.”
“It’s a process, yeah, but I just have to keep working hard, that’s what all my coaches keep telling me, just keep working, keep working,” Hayes said. “I have to do more than others.”
One of the aspects of playing cornerback that Hayes has embraced is the competition. The game he said he enjoyed the most last season was at Arizona State when he got to go up against N’Keal Harry.
Harry, who was selected by the New England Patriots with the last pick of the first round of the NFL draft in April, finished with five catches for 84 yards, with 41 of those yards coming on a late touchdown in the blowout win for the Sun Devils.
“I feel like that was a good game for me just because my competition actually showed me, you could say, new ways to play DB and my own style of playing,” Hayes said. “I love going against big competition like that. So big names, I love playing big names. It excites me in all different aspects of the game.”
Hayes wasn’t afraid to ask questions of his teammates last season and is always looking to learn more about how to play the position better.
“Seeing him change over the years and just how hard he worked just to go from quarterback to cornerback at this level, and getting a chance to start, that is everything,” senior safety Jalen Moore said. “With him I just feel like he needs to stay mentally focused.
“One thing about him, he always wants to learn. Every day he is excited to work.”
Added senior receiver Trevon Bradford, who has had to go up against Hayes in practice many times: “Every year he has improved a lot. Cornerback is probably the hardest position to play, if I’m being honest. He works really hard to try to be better and just improve. It’s nice to see him develop into that lockdown corner.”
Hayes said he feels like this season he is better prepared in knowing and understanding the position and is where he needs to be in terms of being faster, smarter and stronger, as well as knowing the opposition.
He’s also thankful for the coaching he is receiving from new secondary coach Blue Adams.
“He brings the excitement,” Hayes said. “He wants us to get better. He wants me to be better as a man off the field, on the field and footballwise. He’s teaching me knew things that I feel like any other coach probably wouldn’t have taught me before.
“I enjoy his presence and what his mindset it. That’s exactly what he needs to bring into the DB room and to myself because I’ve never had that before. I love that.”
With a deep defensive backfield, Hayes will need to continue to grow to stay on the field. It’s just another challenge for the former quarterback who is in the process of making a name for himself on the other side of the ball.