'Gump' Hayes ready to run free for the Sun Devils

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TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

The game day atmosphere will be a little different this fall in Tempe.

As part of the multi-year renovation of Sun Devil Stadium, Arizona State's student section will be split up and moved behind both the north and south endzones. If things go according to plan for De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes, those students may need to bring stop signs to the games.

The speedy running back carries with him a childhood nickname earned for being the fastest kid around who never slowed down. He is now itching to run free for the Sun Devils after an unanticipated detour last year.

The Richmond, Va. native excelled at Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania for two seasons, emerging as one of the most coveted junior college recruits in the 2014 class. Hayes garnered several offers, including USC, Kansas, and Purdue, but when the time came, he chose Arizona State over Oklahoma.

"It just felt so right here,” Hayes said. “The atmosphere, the coaching staff, the community, it was just different out here. It was different. It fit me and my style."

Heading into the 2014 season, expectations were high for Hayes. His versatility on offensive and explosiveness as a returner seemed to fit right into what the team was needing. Unfortunately for Hayes and the team, delays in getting full clearance ultimately led to him take 2014 as a redshirt year.

"It was very difficult,” said Hayes of the situation.” When I was coming in, my plan was to be playing right away. Sitting on the sideline hurt me a lot. I put myself in that situation, so I just had to keep my head up and come back better than I was before."

While the disappointment of not getting onto the field was strong, the year on the sidelines did pay many benefits.

"I tried to learn as much as possible and be a sponge to absorb everything as quick as possible,” said Hayes. “I felt like when I redshirted, I benefited a lot. I got mentally stronger, physically stronger, smarter, and I picked up more knowledge of the game."

The challenges for Hayes came both on and off the field during that first year in Tempe.

Making the leap from junior college football to the Pac-12 brought with it a new level of competition to face, all the while as he tried to figure out the balancing act between both ends of the student-athlete spectrum.

"The game speed. The plays. Trying to put so much together and dealing with school and football,” Hayes said outlining his most difficult adjustments. “You have practice, then you go straight to class. You don't have much time for everything. It's trying to fit everything into a tight schedule was the most difficult thing."

Hayes credits teammates D.J. Foster and Mike Bercovici as key figures in helping his acclimation to life as a Sun Devil player, but one person in the program also helped him to also mature as a man: head coach Todd Graham. He provided Hayes the proper mix of support and motivation to get the talented player’s mind focused on success.

“Coming here, I became more responsible and more of a man,” Hayes said. “I think Coach Graham really played a big role in that. He sat down and talked to me. He's not a guy who is going hand you anything. He's going to make you work for it. Those are the type of things that help you grow up. When Coach Graham brought me in, he told me from Day 1, 'I want you to play right away, but I'm not going to give it to you. You have to work and earn it.' That helped me out a lot.”

As his mind was getting right, his body followed. Unlike anything he experienced before, ASU’s strength and conditioning program under Shawn Griswold helped mold Haye’s physical base into a more potent weapon on the field.

"That made a huge impact,” Hayes said. “I feel like I'm way faster, stronger. My body looks different. I feel like Griz and his strength staff are incredible. They put together a plan to get your body right."

A player long noted for his blazing speed, Hayes may now be faster than ever after spending a year until Griswold's watch.

"The last (timed 40-yard dash) I ran was 4.39, 4.37,” he said.

The work put into the mental and physical aspects of the game made was evident during the team’s spring practices. Hayes was a consistent playmaker during the team’s 15 sessions, showing flashes of his game-breaking potential.

"I felt more comfortable than ever,” said Hayes of spring. “I'm playing like I'm used to playing. I'm playing how Gump knows how to play the game: Fast. I know it. I feel like I can be explosive and make plays right away this season."

Hayes’ versatility allows ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell flexibility in scheming creative ways to get the ball to the 5-foot-11, 182-pounder in space. Hayes has seen time both in the backfield and as a wide receiver, and figures to move around as game situation and team needs dictate.

The top backs on ASU’s depth chart—sophomores Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage—are both more physical runners, and Hayes gives the backfield an electric change of pace. At wide receiver, Foster is the team’s No. 1 target, but presumed starter and top deep threat Cam Smith is out for the year with a knee injury. That speedy downfield receiver could be a role Hayes helps to fill.

“The way Coach Norvell's offense uses guys and puts them in space, that's the type of offense that I like,” Hayes said. “I feel like I'll be playing what D.J. (Foster) played. A slot, then a running back.”

He’ll also look to help revive the Sun Devil special teams.

In the team’s pre-camp depth chart, Hayes is listed as the top option at both punt and kickoff returner. The Sun Devils have struggled in those areas in recent years, especially on punt returns, where ASU ranked a dismal 120th nationally in 2014.

With ASU preparing to open up fall camp on Aug. 5, Hayes is looking to maintain the momentum gained during the spring while working towards getting the rest of the offense ready for a season filled with lofty expectations.

"A confidence booster, I just want to keep my mind focused and get everything down pat,“ Hayes said of the upcoming camp. “I want to stay healthy, keep my mind sharp, and keep everyone on the same page. I feel like this offense will be way more explosive than it has been in a long time.”

Hayes has waited a long time to get his Sun Devil career underway, so it's no surprise that he aims to start making his mark with with the season-opening kickoff against Texas A&M on Sept. 5.

"I tell myself all the time, I have to take the first kickoff return back."

Not surprisingly, his goals don't stop there. Gump keeps running and running, and the Sun Devils would be more than happy to follow along.

"I also want to lead the nation in all-purpose yards. I want to be one of the most explosive players in college football, and I want to get that national championship."

In that case, leave the stop signs at home.

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