If someone, anyone at Vanderbilt, had answered their phone four years ago, Matt Dayes never would have played for N.C. State.
Thanks to some good timing, and a change of heart, N.C. State ended up with one of the best running backs in school history.
In his last college game, Dayes will finally get to be on the same field as Vanderbilt when the Wolfpack (6-6) faces the Commodores (6-6) in the Independence Bowl on Monday (5 p.m., ESPN2) in Shreveport, La.
“It’s pretty cool to actually play them,” Dayes said. “I don’t feel like it needs to be a huge story about something like that.”
Ah, but it is.
You see, N.C. State and Vanderbilt met in the Music City Bowl in 2012. Dayes, a three-star recruit out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was in the process of choosing between the two schools. He had decided before the bowl game, the winner would be his college choice.
Vanderbilt beat N.C. State, in the midst of a coaching transition from Tom O’Brien to Dave Doeren, 38-24 on Dec. 31, 2012.
Not long after, Dayes decided to call N.C. State assistant coach Des Kitchings and let him know he had appreciated the effort and to thank him for the attention in the recruiting process but he was going to Vanderbilt.
“I called coach Kitchings to tell him thank you for the opportunity,” Dayes said. “That’s what I was doing. He was the one who told me to take some time to think about it.”
Dayes didn’t think he needed any more time. He called then Vanderbilt coach James Franklin to tell him the good news. No answer. Dayes tried a few other Vanderbilt assistants. No answer.
“I tried to tell them but all of them were on flights,” Dayes said.
The Vanderbilt coaches were out recruiting and missed out on a running back who enters the bowl game fourth on N.C. State’s career rushing list (2,809 yards).
When Dayes couldn’t get a hold of anyone from Vanderbilt, he called Kitchings back and committed to play for the Wolfpack.
“I know he’s happy where he ended up and things happen for a reason,” Doeren said.
I had a lot of people in my ear tell me, ‘Go play there, it’s the SEC.’ I was mostly just listening to other people but when I took time to actually think about it and do my own thinking, I felt like this was the right place for me.
NC State running back Matt Dayes
This season, the 5-9, 203-pound Dayes became the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher (1,119 yards) since 2002. He was on pace for 1,000 yards last season when he was sidelined with a toe injury after seven and a half games.
He had 865 rushing yards in 2015. He missed the final five games but still ranks fourth on the Wolfpack career rushing list behind Ted Brown (4,602), Joe McIntosh (3,642) and Tremayne Stephens (3,553).
The appeal of Vanderbilt, traditionally one of the worst teams in the SEC, was the chance to play in the conference.
“I had a lot of people in my ear tell me, ‘Go play there, it’s the SEC,’ ” Dayes said. “I was mostly just listening to other people but when I took time to actually think about it and do my own thinking, I felt like this was the right place for me.”
Dayes had some second thoughts during his freshman year in 2013 when Vanderbilt went 9-4 and the Wolfpack finished 3-9.
“I was kind of salty about that a little bit,” Dayes said. “It all worked out.”
Franklin left Vanderbilt for Penn State after the 2013 season and Dayes’ role began to increase as a sophomore the next year. The Wolfpack also started winning more, going 8-5 in 2014 and 7-6 last season.
And, finally, in Shreveport, Dayes will get a chance to play against an SEC opponent. He missed last year’s Belk Bowl loss to Mississippi State with the toe injury.
That’s one of the reasons Dayes decided he wouldn’t follow the lead of LSU running back Leonard Fournette and Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, who are sitting out their respective bowl games to protect their NFL draft status.
“I would be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind but I don’t think I could ever go out like that,” Dayes said.
It’s a fitting end then. Dayes’ career didn’t start like he thought it would have, either. In both cases, N.C. State is better off for it.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
Can you hear me now?
If Vanderbilt had answered Matt Dayes’ phone calls, N.C. State would have missed out on one of the best running backs in school history. Where Dayes ranks on the Wolfpack career rushing list:
Notes: Prior to 2002, the NCAA did not include statistics from bowl games in career totals; McIntosh did not play in a bowl game; Brown is the ACC’s career leading rusher.
Source: N.C. State