Gophers’ Hageman could anchor defense

MINNEAPOLIS — Ra’Shede Hageman knows this is a big year for him. Then again, a lot of things in Hageman’s world are big.

The Gophers senior defensive lineman weighs in at 6-foot-6, 311 pounds, an intimidating presence on Minnesota’s line. Even in practice, Hageman towers over most of his teammates. As a junior last year, Hageman saw an increase in the amount of double teams he faced. Despite that, the Minneapolis native finished with six sacks and 35 tackles to earn All-Big Ten honorable mention by the media.

Some wondered whether Hageman would forego his senior season at Minnesota and enter the NFL Draft. Despite his NFL size, Hageman knew he had plenty to work on to become an NFL-caliber player. His pad level needs to improve, he admits, as does his first step off the line.

As big as the 2013 season is for Hageman, he knows it has to start with a big spring.

“I’m just trying to be the most dominant player I can be,” Hageman said this week. “During captain’s practice, just working on the little things like the technique and the first step so I can have a full advantage for this season.”

It’s hard to read too much into a player’s performance in the spring, but the Gophers coaching staff is impressed by what they’ve seen in Hageman through the first several practices. Not only has he become even more imposing on the defensive line, but he’s also embraced his leadership role as a redshirt senior.

“He’s done great things, he really has. He’s focused in,” Gophers head coach Jerry Kill said. “He’s got to stay in there and stay where he’s at. It’s just like anything, as we get older we mature. I think he knows what’s in front of him if he does what he needs to do. He’s certainly focused on it right now, and he’s been that way since we’ve come back. He’s really taken it up a notch.”

Asked what Hageman’s potential could be, Kill chuckled before giving his answer.

“Ra’Shede is locked in right now,” Kill said. “He’s comfortable. He’s not thinking. He’s strong. He benched 450. He cleaned 360. He vertical jumped 38 inches. He’s locked in. He’s focused. This is the most focused I’ve seen Ra’Shede since I’ve been here. He’s doing a heck of a job right now.”

That’s a good thing for the Gophers, who have continued to see improvement on the defensive line over the last few seasons. Not long ago, Minnesota ranked dead last in the Big Ten with just nine sacks as a team. In 2012, the Gophers got to opposing quarterbacks 26 times. Only D.L. Wilhite (8.5) had more sacks than Hageman’s six.

Wilhite graduated following the 2012 season, meaning Hageman is Minnesota’s returning sack leader. He’ll likely be double teamed more frequently than he was a year ago, but he learned last season how to handle the increased attention from opposing offenses.

“I definitely understood me being a dominant player on my team, I was likely going to get double teamed,” Hageman said. “But me being double teamed, that means the linebackers are going to come free and make plays. I’m definitely a team player. If I’ve got to hold two O-linemen for my linebackers to make a play, then it’s football. I’ll take that chance.”

If Hageman has a big season for the Gophers, his NFL stock will certainly rise. Even if he replicates the numbers he had as a junior, he’ll likely still get some looks at the next level if for no other reason than his size and strength.

That goal of playing at the next level is far in the future for Hageman, though.

“I’m just taking it one day at a time and having coaches obviously critiquing my work as I go on,” Hageman said. “But the future’s going to take care of itself. I’ve just got to take care of things one day at a time. That’s the only thing I can worry about is how I play.”

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