FARGO — The North Dakota State roster has Josh Hayes listed as “CB” as his position, but it may be more technical than that. Like “SCB.”
It’s an unwritten rule within the Bison secondary that at least one guy every year is designated as the cornerback who gets the other team’s best receiver. In the NDSU Division I FCS title run of eight in nine years, that distinction has belonged to Marcus Williams, CJ Smith, Jalen Allison and Marquise Bridges.
This year, Hayes is slated to receive the baton.
“If you get stuck with that title, that is one you’re going to be happy about for sure,” he said.
It took three years of steady development but Hayes has earned his shot. He made an impression his true freshman year when he started the national title game against James Madison in 2017 because of injuries to both NDSU starting cornerbacks.
He had three tackles, forced a fumble and the Bison held down the powerful Dukes offense in a 17-13 victory.
“I was nervous as all get-out,” Hayes said.
Nerves have translated to confidence since. He played all 15 games and started two as a dependable backup his sophomore season. Last year was a breakthrough.
“The thing that makes Josh real unique and different from guys in the past is his physicality,” said NDSU cornerbacks coach Kody Morgan. “He’s not afraid to go hit people and that is a positive to him. On top of that, his coverage skills make him one of our best man coverage guys.”
Hayes started all 16 games in 2019 with 10 pass breakups and two interceptions on a defense that allowed the fewest passing yards in the FCS. He was a second team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference pick.
And once again, he made life tough on the Dukes in the title game with seven tackles and one pass breakup.
“I think I made the most strides going into my junior year,” Hayes said, “just because I knew I would be stepping into a starting role and knowing I would have to be reliable. Everybody on the field would have to rely on me at some point or another and I think just knowing that I needed to build trust with everybody else on the field made me pick my game up.”
Hayes will start at cornerback for the Oct. 3 lone fall game against Central Arkansas at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. Morgan said junior Destin Talbert is the leader in the clubhouse to start at the other cornerback spot. After that, the Bison are in search of experience.
Sophomore Jayden Price from Derby, Kan., played mostly special teams last season. The other five corners haven’t played a down.
“You can throw Jayden Price into the mix,” Morgan said. “He hasn’t played a lot of snaps on defense but he’s emerged as a really talented player. Very good ball skills. He’s had an extremely productive fall camp; I can’t tell you how many picks he’s had but it’s probably four or five.”
Morgan said true freshmen Courtney Eubanks from St. Petersburg, Fla., and Marquise Sigle from Omaha, Neb., have shown potential to play right away.
The senior Hayes, a potential NFL prospect, said he’s playing the spring Missouri Valley Football Conference season. Since the NCAA ruled this season doesn’t count on anybody’s eligibility, plus the fact he played as a true freshman, he may also play next fall.
“I’m kind of in a buffer zone, trying to see which situation would give me the best opportunity to play at the next level,” he said. “Just give myself a better chance and see what I can do to continue to grow. That’s a decision that will be made when it’s necessary.”
Williams played for six NFL teams from 2014-18. Smith had stints with three teams from 2016-18. Allison signed a free agent contract with Tampa Bay, but didn’t stick. Bridges played in the Hula Bowl all-star game and had interest from the CFL, but that didn’t materialize after the CFL canceled its season.
“When I hear those names, I just think about lockdown defenders, lockdown cornerbacks,” Hayes said. “They are the lineage that set me up here to where I am now so I just have a lot of gratitude for those guys. Jalen Allison for sure because when I first got here he took me under his wing and taught me a lot.”
Morgan said not having a pro day hurt Bridges’ chances at a free agent contract, but he’s still working out hoping to land somewhere. Morgan said the San Francisco 49ers have shown interest of late.
“He’s been searching,” Morgan said. “He’s never going to give up which I appreciate. He’ll keep working his butt off and training as hard as he can.”