MINNEAPOLIS — University of Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman is an intimidating figure. The Minneapolis native and redshirt junior stands at 6-foot-6 and weighs just a hair over 300 pounds.
Through two games in the Gophers’ 2012 season, Hageman has been a force to be reckoned with on Minnesota’s defensive line. He has three sacks, including two this past Saturday against New Hampshire. Hageman’s three sacks on the season are currently tied for most in the Big Ten, along with Purdue’s Kawann Short and Penn State freshman Deion Barnes.
Hageman has already surpassed his sack total from a year ago, when he had just two in 12 games as a sophomore. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is reaping the benefits of the progress Hageman has made from a year ago.
“Ra’Shede has certainly learned how to play defensive tackle,” Kill said Tuesday. “His best years are way ahead of him. He’s still learning. But he’s continued to get better. Athletically, he’s gifted; a gifted young man.”
Hageman has been part of a much-improved defensive line that has already gotten to opposing quarterbacks at a better rate than it did a year ago. As a defense, Minnesota has registered six sacks in two games — three by Hageman, two and a half by D.L. Wilhite and a half sack by Michael Amaefula — after 19 total sacks in 12 games last year.
Kill said things won’t be as easy on Saturday when the Gophers host Western Michigan, a team that put up 52 points in last weekend’s win over Eastern Illinois. In two games, quarterback Alex Carder has already attempted 83 passes, completing 55 of those for 603 yards and six touchdowns.
During his time as the head coach at both Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, Kill faced coach Bill Cubit’s Broncos team several times. Kill was 2-1 against Western Michigan while at Northern Illinois and lost to the Broncos in 2005 while at Southern Illinois. He knows what to expect from Western Michigan’s offense and knows his defensive line will have its hands full in trying to get to the quarterback.
“I worry about this because Coach Cubit is a smart coach. That ball is going to come out in a hurry on Saturday, so I mean, he’s going to get the ball out,” Kill said. “They’re a quick three (step drop), quick five. He’s played us, so he’s got a good cue on what he needs to do to get that ball out.”
As the Broncos prepare to contain Hageman, there’s a good chance he’ll get double teamed on Saturday. That was the case against both UNLV and New Hampshire as Minnesota’s opponents have tried to figure out how to slow down the imposing Hageman.
“I definitely have to be prepared for double teams and getting cut blocks more than I did last year,” Hageman said. “I hate double teams. I get them all the time.”
He may not like them, but Hageman has handled double teams well so far this season. Minnesota’s offense has to go up against Hageman in practice, and it’s left the Gophers fortunate that they don’t have to line up against him on game days.
“I’m just thankful that he’s on our team and that I don’t have to go against him on Saturday,” said Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray. “I don’t know right now, (but) I don’t think there’s anyone as big as him that we’re going to play against. I’m just happy he’s on our side of the ball. He’s been giving our offensive line and me headaches all camp. I hope he continues to do that for those other teams.”
Finding a balance: In Saturday’s win over New Hampshire, Minnesota attempted just 14 passes while rushing the ball 52 times — a ratio of nearly 4:1.
Gray threw just eight passes as the starter, while backup Max Shortell had six attempts (five completions) for 72 yards and a touchdown. Kill said Tuesday that the running-heavy play calling was designed to keep New Hampshire’s fast-paced offense off the field.
“I think you always try to balance it out as much as you can but it’s according to who you play and what you do, and we did exactly what we needed to do to play against New Hampshire,” Kill said. “(We) could we have thrown it eight or nine, 10 more times, possibly, but at the same time didn’t want a no huddle team to get on a roll. We wanted to try to control the football a little bit, and we seemed to be moving the ball fairly well when we didn’t make a mistake or two.”
Against UNLV, Minnesota had a more balanced attack: 46 rushes and 30 pass attempts. The Gophers gained more yards through the air against the Rebels (269) than they did on the ground (209). But against New Hampshire, Minnesota racked up just 172 passing yards versus 240 rushing yards.
“I think you always try to have as much balance in your offense as you possibly can,” Kill said. “You want to keep people off balance.”
The redshirt plan: With such a young roster this season — one that includes just 14 seniors — the Gophers are hoping to redshirt as many freshmen as they can in order to produce depth for future teams. But it’s not as easy to do at some positions as it is at others.
Kill said almost all of Minnesota’s offensive linemen will redshirt. Some of the defensive backs, meanwhile, may not have that luxury since the Gophers lost plenty of experience in the secondary from a year ago.
“We have three offensive linemen that are very talented young people. Two of them are 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds,” Kill said. “And yeah, can we step them out there and play them right now, yeah, but they’re not going to be as strong and physical as we need them to be. If we red shirt them over the next three or four years they’re going to be very strong and talented people. We can afford to do that right now with where we’re at up front.”
Kill noted Tuesday that the plan is for 24 freshmen to redshirt this season, gaining a year of experience and having time to bulk up without losing a year of eligibility.
“It’s kind of a balancing act right now, and I count on the board trying to red shirt maybe 24 kids. That’s pretty good,” Kill said. “But can we do that? We’ll see. Injuries control a lot of that.”