Hageman’s presence at Minnesota is unmistakable

Ra’Shede Hageman is perhaps the premier attraction on the team

as his final season for Minnesota begins, and that’s not a surprise

given the acclaim he carried as a recruit four years ago.

His journey here, to leader of the Gophers and pro prospect, has

included plenty of unexpected turns. His unmistakable presence is a

triumph in itself, even before he begins to pressure the passer

this fall.

”I’ve just matured a lot. It’s like night and day,” said

Hageman, who turned 23 this month. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound

defensive tackle is on all the preseason All-Big Ten teams, and

he’s widely projected as a top-50 NFL draft pick, something this

program hasn’t produced in eight years.

”I kind of want to leave a legacy,” Hageman said.

As a child, with his mother bedeviled by drugs and alcohol,

Hageman was in and out of foster homes until a Minneapolis couple

adopted him. Stable family life didn’t automatically bring

happiness, and he struggled with his identity as a black kid with

well-to-do white parents.

Once he flourished as a football and basketball star at Washburn

High School, about six miles south of the university, Hageman

signed with the Gophers in 2009 as one of the country’s most

sought-after tight ends.

Overweight by the end of his redshirt season, Hageman was moved

to defense for the following year. But his grades slipped badly

enough he was ordered to sit out the last three games to focus on

school. After making strides as a sophomore, Hageman was arrested

for disorderly conduct, a charge that was later dropped, following

a fight he was trying to break up at a campus bar.

Last season, Hageman finally broke through with six sacks while

starting every game. With that imposing frame and enough

athleticism to still be able to put down windmill dunks – ”you’d

be surprised what I can do with the ball,” he said – Hageman is

poised for a big finish. He’s certain to face double teams despite

an experienced group of defensive linemen around him, but if all

that off-the-field drama didn’t faze him an extra blocker sure

won’t.

”Ra’Shede is hungrier than he’s ever been. Ra’Shede is more

focused than he’s ever been,” safety Brock Vereen said. ”And

without announcing that to the team, everybody’s noticed it. When

you have a freak of nature like that who has the ability and makes

the plays like he does, guys are naturally going to follow

him.”

When coach Jerry Kill took over the job in 2011, Hageman’s place

on the roster was tenuous. But he heeded the shape-up-or-ship-out

warning, becoming more serious about studying and developing into a

monster in the weight room. Hageman, too, has been active in

community service, using his story of overcoming adversity to

encourage city youth.

”I think he’s in as good of shape and as focused as I’ve seen

him since I’ve been here,” Kill said. ”So I think he understands

how important it is and what kind of success we can have.”

How about a double-digit sack total?

”I’m just trying to do what I can to help the team, obviously,

but my personal goal, really, I think I could sleep better knowing

I had 10-plus,” Hageman said. ”I know it’s a big number, but the

sky’s the limit.”

There’s no limit to deadpan one-liners, either, from this

soft-spoken guy playing with the pride of being the rare

Minneapolis public school alumnus to star for the Gophers in the

modern era.

”I’m not going to lie: I’ve spent a couple of days at Mesa

Pizza,” he said, referring to the popular late-night snack spot a

few blocks from the football facility during a discussion about his

weight, which is 50 pounds more than when he first came to

campus.

”Getting too big and eating too much was a good thing. I feel

like d-tackle chose me,” Hageman said.

As for defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli, Hageman has declared

his fellow senior starter ”the brains of the operation.” Hageman,

naturally, is the strength.

”He does his job. He never messes up. He definitely helps me on

the field when I get too tired or I don’t know any of the plays,

even though I’m supposed to,” Hageman said, quietly adding:

”Don’t tell coach.”

Kill won’t mind. if Hageman keeps up his progress this fall.

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