IT DIDN'T TAKE LONG FOR WESLEY MCGRIFF, VANDERBILT'S DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH SINCE February, to be impressed by his star pupil. When Casey Hayward popped into his new mentor's office to introduce himself, McGriff sized him up, taking note of Hayward's solid 5' 11", 188-pound frame. Hayward became even more impressive once McGriff started prodding the cornerback's mind, asking about formations and past play-calling and finding himself captivated by Hayward's quick answers. And then came spring practices, when the player's situational awareness sometimes surpassed his coach's—once Hayward, citing the offense's tendencies, wisely recorrected McGriff's corrections about where to line up. "He has a very high football IQ," says McGriff. "Casey's ahead of the game in that area."
Maybe that's because Hayward, a late arrival to the defensive backfield, spent so much of his career honing his football IQ on the other side of the ball. His father, Casey Sr., first put a pigskin in Casey's hands when the boy was four; a year later Casey was running sweeps as the QB of a youth team. His running prowess landed him primarily at tailback for much of his childhood, but his overall athleticism led coaches to try him at other positions as well, and he entered Perry (Ga.) High capable of playing any skill position. Tempted by his elusiveness and speed, the coaches put him back behind center to maximize his impact on the game. "When he had the ball in his hands, he was like a jackrabbit," says Andy Scott, Hayward's coach at Perry. "You couldn't catch him."
Playing in Scott's spread offense (a copy of West Virginia's), Hayward won the starting quarterback job as a sophomore and held it for three years, throwing for 39 touchdowns and running for three dozen more. He led Perry to the state AAA playoff quarterfinals as a senior while being recognized as his region's offensive player of the year and as the area's top athlete. The spring before, he almost earned a less official distinction—shutdown quarterback—when Scott nearly stopped the team's spring game on account of Hayward's dominance. "We could not tackle Casey," Scott says. "It was comical to watch."
Perhaps Perry's defense could have used one of its best players: Casey Hayward. While manning the helm of the offense, Hayward had begun dabbling in the defensive secondary, often matching up with the opponents' top receiver for 15 to 20 snaps per game. Assistant coaches argued over his services. Without much formal training in the position's fundamentals, Hayward used his QB smarts to read routes and bait opposing passers to throw his way. When they did, his playmaking ability helped him return three of his four interceptions for touchdowns during his all-state senior season. "Yeah," Hayward concedes with a hint of a laugh, "I did some things back there."
Now he's doing more in Nashville, where his six interceptions last fall tied for fifth nationally and ranked second in the SEC, helping him earn all-conference second-team honors. For this fall he's set his sights on another distinction, the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back. He's preparing diligently: By mid-May he had already studied film on three SEC foes. His studies focus not only on his own assignments but also his teammates' so that he can better lead his unit on the field. "I try to be the quarterback in the secondary," he says. And he's perfect for the role.