Notebook: For Gophers' Hageman, his potential pro future can wait
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Gophers junior defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman considered making the jump to the NFL one year early.
He seems to have come to a logical conclusion. The Gophers' upcoming showdown with Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston (Dec. 28) won't be his last game in Maroon and Gold. His potential pro future can wait.
After spending the three weeks since the Gophers' regular season finale discussing the situation with his family and coaches, Hageman said Saturday he expects to return for his senior season.
"I feel like I need to get one more year under my belt," Hageman said. "Getting another year means I've got another spring ball to work hard, get a little bit stronger, so I can be a dominant player in the Big Ten."
Hageman, an intimidating 6-foot-6, 301-pound force on the Gophers' defensive line, is building towards that status, but he isn't there yet.
One year after an up and down 2011 season, Hageman has gained significant consistency and has developed into a fixture on the line. His five sacks were second on the team only to defensive end D.L. Wilhite, who finished a half of sack behind Ohio State's John Simon for the Big Ten's top billing, and tied for seventh-most in the conference. With 29 tackles, he more than doubled his output from his sophomore campaign.
The drastic leap in production from Hageman, who has switched from tight end to defensive end to nose tackle since arriving on campus in 2009, has been a major reason for the resurgence of a Gophers' D-line that floundered last year. It has also caused his draft stock to steadily rise.
Hageman's improvement was a recognized by the Big Ten with all-conference honorable mention honors. The Big Ten Network's Tom Dienhart also labeled the former Washburn High School standout as a likely prospect for the upcoming for the 2013 NFL Draft.
However, though Hageman may eventually become the Gophers' first defensive lineman drafted since Anthony Montgomery went in the fifth round of the 2006 draft, another collegiate season might considerably improve his standing in the eyes' of pro scouts.
"Does he have NFL ability and talent? I don't think there is any question about that," coach Jerry Kill said. "You don't get that many people that big, that fast, that athletic ... When you're that big, he knows he's got some ability. He's a smart kid. He watches film. He knows he's still got work to do."
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys recognizes Hageman's development into one of the team's premier players, but points to his skills stopping the run as an area in need of improvement prior to taking the step to the pro level.
"He's still got some work to do with his hands," Claeys said. "He injured his shoulder there for a little bit. For three or four games, he wasn't able to get off blocks as well. It's just the little things. He has all the athletic abilities. That's not going to improve any."
"He hadn't played a whole lot (last season), so he'll continue to improve against the run. He's taking charge of that group up front. It will be good to have him back."
With Hageman planning to return, the Gophers will have three of their starting D-lineman back next season, along with defensive end Michael Amaefula and defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli.
On the go
It's been a busy month for Kill and his coaching staff. With the recruiting season in its final push, the Gophers have held their practices on the weekends as much of the staff has been spread throughout the country during the week.
Kill left Monday for several recruiting visits, including a trip to Van Alstyne, Texas to meet with already committed offensive lineman Alex Mayes. Kill made a quick stop back in Minneapolis Wednesday for practice, though most of the position coaches were absent, before heading back on the road.
Numerous recruits have made visits to Minnesota in the last two weeks. The Gophers' first bowl berth since 2009 has had the added benefit of giving those recruits something to see when they get to campus, instead of a team plunged into a premature offseason.
"There's not a lot of rest time now," Kill said. "You want it to be that way. You want it that way or sitting at home doing nothing. It's been hectic, but it's good when you can bring recruits in and they can watch you practice."
Kill has placed a heavy focus on getting reps for his younger players in the 15 pre-bowl practices allotted, treating the month leading up to the game in similar fashion as spring practice.
Practices have been split in two sessions, with the latter involving only the current redshirt class and non-starting underclassmen. While the perceived payoff can't be evaluated until next season, the Gophers insist the extra attention is a crucial step in the program's progression.
"You let those kids you're going to count on get in there and get going," Claeys said. "They get another month to lift weights. And it's one month less time off, so the carryover makes a difference. When you start meeting in March to get ready for spring ball, it's a lot better that they almost played to the first of the year. There will be a big turnaround."
The Gophers have slowly begun to game plan for Texas Tech, though Kill said they won't get into specifics until later this week. Three more practices are scheduled before the team takes off Saturday for Houston. They will be allowed a final five practices during their six-day stay in the Lone Star state.
A gracious offer
Soon after Northern Illinois learned of its first-ever appearance in a BCS bowl game, the University's athletic director Jeff Compher made a call to Kill, who was in charge of the football program from 2008 to 2011.
Compher extended an invite to Kill and his family to accompany the team, which is made up largely of players recruited by Kill's staff, to the Orange Bowl on New Year's day.
Kill expressed that he was humbled by the offer, but has yet to decide if he will make the trip to Miami.
"There's no question that I'd love to have the opportunity to see those kids," Kill said. "About 70-75 % of the kids we were a part of ... I have to make sure we take care of business in Minnesota and do our job here. If I can fit it in, I certainly will try to fit in."
The Gophers' offensive line, which was ravaged by injuries all season, finally appears to be as healthy as it's going to get this season.
Center Jon Christenson is back at practice after an ankle sprained suffered Nov. 10th against Illinois hindered the redshirt freshman for the last two weeks of the regular season.
Redshirt junior left tackle Ed Olson is "moving around like he was at the beginning of the year," Kill said. Olson missed four games with lingering ankle troubles.
Injuries forced the Gophers to field six different starting lineups on the O-line, using eight starters. Right tackle Josh Campion and utility lineman Zac Epping were the only members of the line to start every game.
• It hasn't mattered that Texas Tech has undergone a startling coaching change in the last two weeks. The Red Raiders (7-5) remain 13-point favorites to hand the Gophers their fifth consecutive bowl loss.
Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury was hired on Dec. 12 as Texas Tech's new head coach in the wake of Tommy Tuberville sudden departure for Cincinnati. But offensive line coach Chris Thomsen is still slated to serve as interim head coach for the Car Care Bow.
• Freshman wide receiver Jamel Harbison has been cleared for straightforward running, Kill said, nearly four months after tearing his ACL in the Gophers' season opener at UNLV. Prior to the injury, Harbison was expected to be a main part of the receiver rotation. Harbison was granted redshirt status this season.
Fellow freshman Duke Anyanwu, out since August with a major knee injury, is gradually returning to practice. Though still limited, he has recently been allowed to participate in pass shell drills. The Gophers plan to have Anyanwu fully healthy when spring practice begins in March.