Casey Hayward believes his body of work speaks for itself.
In four years in the toughest football conference in the country, he repeatedly held the SEC’s best receivers in check and tied a Vanderbilt record with 15 interceptions.
“I feel like I’m a first-round guy,” Hayward said. “I think I am one of the top five cornerbacks in the nation.”
Still, Hayward is happy to put in little additional effort. He plans to do exactly that this weekend when he arrives in Indianapolis for the NFL combine.
Fast times and good measurements in front of representatives from all 32 teams over the three-day stretch could boost Hayward’s stock for the upcoming NFL Draft. With the draft still two months away, projections are in the premature stage, but some experts see Hayward as high as a third-round pick.
“If you do really well, regardless of who you are, you can improve your stock,” Hayward said of the combine. “I think if I run a great time [in the 40-yard dash] I’ll improve my stock. I feel like I am a first-round, second-round guy. I don’t know where anybody has projected me. But nobody does until the actual draft day.
“You can project anything but if a team likes you, they like you.”
Hayward helped himself last month when he took part in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. In addition to playing with some of the country’s other top seniors, he spent a week receiving tutelage from the coaching staff of the Washington Redskins, who coached the South team.
He capped off the week with a stellar performance in the game. He intercepted one pass and broke up another.
“I think I performed pretty good overall,” he said. “I showed people what they already know I can do. ... As long as I am getting taught what they want me to do I feel like I can fit anybody’s scheme. We ran zone. We ran man. We ran cover 2. I think I can fit anybody’s scheme.”
Opportunities such as the Senior Bowl, the combine and his Pro Day in March at Vanderbilt are important to turn NFL scouts from doubters into believers.
At 5-foot-11 and 188 pounds, Hayward could be viewed as undersized. His quickness is another area of concern, and he admitted he is working on improving his speed and footwork.
He said without training he can run the 40-yard dash in the low 4.5 seconds. His lowest time has been listed at 4.42. Since early January, he has been in Florida training and said his times have improved but opted to keep them to himself.
“I’m going to wait till the combine to put them out,” said Hayward, a native of Perry, Ga. “They’re pretty good, though. Everybody wants to see how fast I am going to run. I just want to show everybody I can run fast as any corner.”
Over the past four years at Vanderbilt, the All-American and two-time All-SEC selection didn’t have a hard time keeping up with his competition.
He developed into a shutdown cornerback, breaking up 39 passes and registering 198 tackles.
“I’m always around the ball,” Hayward said. “You can’t beat that — someone always around the ball. I feel like I am going to bring that to an NFL team and give them the instincts of a smart player.”
Hayward really excelled in his past two seasons. Not afraid to be aggressive and jump routes, he intercepted 13 passes as a junior and senior.
He finished with seven in 2011 and had two games with multiple interceptions, including two interceptions in his final collegiate game against Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl.
“I think he is a special player, and he is going to have a chance to play for a very, very long time,” Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin said after the Liberty Bowl. “He is a big-time player, and he steps up every single time you need him to step up.”
Hayward isn’t the only former Commodore with dreams of hearing his name called during the draft.
Safety Sean Richardson joins Hayward at the combine after the two spent the past four years as teammates in the secondary. Vanderbilt hasn’t had multiple invitees at the combine since wide receiver Earl Bennett, offensive guard Chris Williams and linebackers Earl Bennett and Curtis Gatewood attended in 2007.
Richardson, who has been training in California, totaled 63 tackles in 2011, just one more than Hayward. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder sped to the ball throughout his career, recording 149 tackles and breaking up 10 passes.
He is projected as either a late seventh-round draft pick or undrafted free agent.
“Sean is really fast and explosive. I think he is going to be able to show that at the combine,” Hayward said. “He is one of the most underrated safeties there is in the SEC and in the country. Me, him, [defensive end] Tim Fugger and the rest of the team kind of get overlooked because of the school and all the other talent in the SEC. We’ve been as productive as anybody in the SEC.”
This weekend they’ll have yet another chance to prove it.