Villanova football hoisted the CAA Championship trophy for the first time since 2012 last Saturday after a 21-13 road victory over rival Delaware. Despite trailing by six in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats were able to score two unanswered touchdowns to win it late. Senior running back Jalen Jackson scored the first on a goal-line run before junior wide receiver Jaaron Hayek reeled in a 24-yard touchdown reception to give the Wildcats some much-needed breathing room.
It was the fourth consecutive game that Hayek found the end zone, and the seventh game out of 11 overall that he has scored a touchdown. The Wayne, N.J., native credits quarterback Daniel Smith for his recent success in the red zone.
“I’ve really felt as if I’m more in sync with Danny,” said Hayek, “and I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He puts the ball exactly where it needs to be, so as receivers, if we get to the spot, then the ball is going to come our way.”
Although he leads the team in receiving touchdowns this year with eight, earlier in the season Hayek went four straight weeks without a score, making only five receptions during that span. The junior, though, has rediscovered his connection with Smith of late, averaging about five receptions per contest over the last month.
“The ball just did not seem to be finding me; it had nothing to do with schemes or matchups or anything, it’s just sometimes how the game goes,” Hayek said. “But the one thing the coaching staff kept emphasizing was if you do your job every play, good things will happen. So I just think it’s karma coming back my way now.”
The youngest of three brothers, Hayek became used to not getting the ball thrown his way while playing in the backyard as a child. All three brothers played wide receiver growing up.
“I started playing at 5 years old, it was our favorite thing to do,” Hayek said. “It strengthened my love for the game and pushed me at a young age to be the best I could be.”
His sophomore year of high school was the only season when all three Hayek brothers played alongside one another. The trio led the team to a New Jersey state title that year, before twins Hunter and Tyler both moved on to play at Rutgers the following season.
The Scarlet Knights did not hesitate in trying to reunite the trio, as they were the first school to offer the youngest Hayek a scholarship during his sophomore year. He initially committed to Rutgers before reconsidering and choosing the Wildcats a month before signing day.
“Getting that offer from a Power 5 school as a sophomore was really exciting, especially being so close to home and having my brothers there. But after talking to my brothers about the situation as a whole, I reenrolled into the recruiting process and just thought Villanova would be a perfect fit,” Hayek said.
And what a fit it has been. Hayek exploded on to the scene as a freshman, earning a spot due not only due to his size (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) and athleticism, but his knowledge of the system.
“I made sure to learn the entire playbook by the time I got to campus,” Hayek said. “A month or so before the season, Coach sent out the playbook and signals over but didn’t really demand us to know it. But I figured that would set me apart from the rest of the freshmen, so I really got my nose in there every day and made it a part of my routine.”
His work that offseason translated into production on the field, as he posted totals of 47 catches, 670 yards, and eight touchdowns. Due to COVID-19, Hayek’s sophomore year would be shorter than anticipated, but the four-game season would see him transition into a leadership role.
Even though Villanova did not get a traditional season of experience, being able to play even a few games was important to the team’s development. “Getting those reps and opportunities in the spring, I think that’s the biggest thing is just having like backup role guys ready to go every single possession,” Hayek said.
After securing a playoff bye courtesy of their 9-2 record, the Wildcats will play Holy Cross, which defeated Sacred Heart, 13-10, in the FCS playoffs Friday night at Villanova Stadium.
“We just have to worry about ourselves like we have all year,” Hayek said.
Hayek finding the end zone for a fifth straight game certainly wouldn’t hurt.