There's a distinct possibility that Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden could be in the first-round discussion for the 2013 NFL draft had it not been for a freak injury late in his senior season.
During a practice last November, Hayden suffered a tear in his inferior vena cava—a life-threatening incident that ultimately cost the cornerback the final four games of his collegiate career.
In 20 games before the injury, Hayden made six interceptions, defended 25 passes and established a reputation for being one of the best cornerbacks in Conference USA.
In the following slides, we'll present some of Hayden's top collegiate highlights from his time at Houston.
Hayden caused two turnovers on the road against No. 22 UCLA last season. The first was this interception.
With the Bruins up 17 and driving in the second quarter, Hayden jumped a pass that appeared to be a miscommunicated back-shoulder throw.
The interception marked Hayden's first and only nonconference pick of his collegiate career.
Later in the second quarter, Hayden again did his best to keep Houston in the game.
After the UCLA quarterback scrambled and found an open receiver downfield, Hayden hustled to the football and caused a fumble, which Houston recovered.
However, the Cougars would eventually lose, 37-6.
Over the course of 20 collegiate games, Hayden managed to force six fumbles.
Hayden's strengths come in coverage, but he still flashes the ability to make plays against the run.
Facing No. 22 Penn State in the 2011 Ticket City Bowl, Hayden gave us a taste of that ability.
On the provided play, the Nittany Lions attempt to run an end around to Hayden's side. Instead of biting on any of the misdirection, he stays true to his lane, shoots the gap and brings the ball-carrier down behind the line of scrimmage.
Anxious to see NFL-level anticipation, awareness and acceleration to the football? Hayden provides such an example here.
Up 17-7 on Penn State in 2011, Hayden jumps on an outside breaking route and nearly secures a certain pick-six. It's clear Hayden understands the down and distance (3rd-and-4) and acts accordingly to the route.
While he drops the interception, his break on the football remains as a shining example of how Hayden can make an impact at the next level.
One final play from the Penn State game.
In the third quarter, Hayden impacts the game as a pass-rusher.
Lined up at right cornerback—and with no indication he's coming on the blitz—Hayden explodes off the edge and strips the Penn State quarterback before he can get the ball away. The Cougars recovered the fumble and later scored.
Hayden finished his career with just this lone sack.
In 2011, we see another example of the kind of acceleration Hayden has breaking toward the football.
Facing UAB in a Conference USA matchup, Hayden jumps on a five-yard hook and takes the resulting interception back for his first career touchdown.
The score gave Houston a 49-13 lead in the fourth quarter. The Cougars would go on to win, 56-13.
Hayden capped his scoring career with this interception for a touchdown late in the 2012 season.
Up 21-7 over UTEP but with the Miners driving, Hayden stepped in front of a poorly thrown pass down the deep middle of the field. He then takes the ensuing interception back 97 yards for a game-changing touchdown.
Houston would go on to win, 45-35.