Ra’Shede Hageman focusing on bowl game; NFL to come later

MINNEAPOLIS — Just one game lies between Ra’Shede Hageman
and potentially millions of dollars.

Hageman is expected to be a late first-round pick in the
upcoming NFL Draft. His 6-foot-6, 311-pound frame just has the look of a
professional defensive lineman, and his performance throughout his career at
Minnesota backs up that notion.

The dream of playing in the NFL, one Hageman has had since
he first picked up a football, is now within reach. Even though his college
career isn’t quite over, it’s hard to blame Hageman for looking ahead a few
months.

“I try not to, but sometimes I have insomnia sitting
there thinking about what my future’s going to be like and what I have to do
and what changes I’m going to have to make,” Hageman said. “I’m
always thinking about the future. As of right now, I’m trying to focus on the
bowl game because it’s very important for us to come out with a win.”

That bowl game will be Hageman’s last audition on national
television, as Minnesota and Syracuse will square off on Dec. 27 in the Texas
Bowl on ESPN. By now, most NFL personnel know what Hageman is capable of; a
strong showing in that game in Houston will only solidify those opinions.

In Minnesota’s 12 regular-season games this year, Hageman
had a team-high 11 tackles for loss. His sack total has dropped from six a year
ago to just two in 2013, but that’s partially a byproduct of opponents
double-teaming Hageman on seemingly every play. Even so, he’s been able to
change the game in other ways, as is evident by his eight pass breakups — an
impressive number for a defensive lineman.

Most mock drafts peg Hageman going late in the first round,
although there’s always a chance he could slip to the second round. Those who
have seen his development through the years at Minnesota have no doubt that
Hageman can play at the next level.

“I’d be surprised if he’s not a first-round draft
pick,” said Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. “I don’t see
teams passing on him. After they watch him work out in the combine and you put
his highlight tape together of his negative-yardage plays and the plays he’s
made back to back, you put that on a tape and you watch it, it’s one of the
most impressive things I’ve seen for a guy his size. I think somebody’s going
to get a gem.”

A gem would hardly have described the Hageman that first
stepped foot on campus in 2009, the teenager from Minneapolis with unmistakable
size but raw skills. In fact, he started his Gophers career as a
highly-recruited four-star tight end, not a can’t-miss defensive tackle.

Hageman redshirted his first year at Minnesota and learned a
new position during that time, making the switch from tight end to the
defensive line. But the old coaching staff had Hageman lined up as a defensive
end. It wasn’t until Jerry Kill, Claeys and the rest of the current regime took
over in 2011 that Hageman found a home at defensive tackle.

“There’s a lot of growth. That’s a credit to him, not
anybody else,” Kill said of his prized lineman. “When I came in I
said, ‘This is the way it’s going to be. This is how we’re going to do it.
You’ve got to trust me.’ And it’s not easy for a kid to trust somebody new, and
it took a while. But once we developed a relationship, he took off and he
listened. He didn’t have to. I’m proud of him. He’s come a long way.”

It wasn’t always a smooth ride at the Division I level for
Hageman, even with his talent. But the ups and downs he’s endured on the
football field pale in comparison to what he’s gone through away from the game.

Hageman’s past is a checkered one. He was in and out of
numerous foster homes as a child before he and his brother were eventually
adopted by Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle. It was through football that Hageman
found a positive outlet for all his pent-up childhood frustrations. Back then the
game was just a way to let that anger out. Hageman dreamed of being in the NFL,
but he certainly didn’t think it could be a reality.

Now that dream is closer than he could have ever imagined.
One more game, and Hageman will be on his way from a college player to an NFL
rookie — if all goes according to plan.

“When kids grow up, they obviously have dreams of
playing in the league. That was a dream of mine my freshman year, but I
couldn’t think of that because I had so many years in front of me,”
Hageman said. “But now that my senior year is closing down, I feel like I
have to prepare myself and get myself ready for that and keep on trucking but
keep a low profile and keep moving. I feel like as of right now I’m just
getting better and learning and still asking questions so I can better myself
in college and at the NFL level.”

That’s the scary thing, too: Hageman and his coaches believe
he can get better. He already earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as a senior
— just his third season playing defensive tackle — and he figures to be a
first-round draft pick.

In Hageman’s mind, he’s just getting started.

“His development each year has been incredible. Is he
at his top? No, he’s not. Could he have played better this year? Sure, he could
have played better,” Claeys said. “Hell, he’s still learning the
game. … I’m very pleased with him because he worked hard every week and just
kept trying to get better.”

Hageman and the rest of his fellow seniors have unfinished
business to attend to before he waits to hear his name called on draft day. One
more goal remains at Minnesota: win a bowl game. It’s something the Gophers
couldn’t do last year, losing this same game a year ago to Texas Tech.

A win later this month would be the ninth this season for
Minnesota, something hardly anyone expected at the beginning of the season. The
turnaround under Kill has been an impressive one, and Hageman deserves at least
a piece of the credit.

“Obviously to change a program you’ve got to start with
baby steps,” Hageman said. “Just to see us win a bowl game and having
a better record and having nine wins lets me know that I helped make the
change.”

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