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The D-line is catching on for former tight end Ra’Shede Hageman, who caught his breath during Gophers practice earlier this week.

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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U's Ra'Shede Hageman tackling switch to defense head-on

  • Article by: DENNIS BRACKIN
  • Star Tribune
  • August 27, 2011 - 12:30 AM

There was a time when Ra'Shede Hageman was considered a player of such promise that one recruiting service rated him as the nation's top high school tight end when he graduated from Minneapolis Washburn.

But those days are a fuzzy memory, clouded by position changes, an academic suspension and a head coaching change. Hageman is in his third fall camp with the Gophers. He has yet to start a game, and likely will never catch a college pass.

There are times, Hageman said this week, when the high school hype feels like a millstone.

"All the time," he said when asked if he feels pressure from his build-up. "I get asked questions about why I'm not playing, and I can tell them this happened and that happened, but I have to show them."

Hageman was switched from tight end to defensive end, and then to defensive tackle, by former coach Tim Brewster. The switch to defense merely altered the superlatives Brewster used to describe Hageman's physical ability, a year ago saying the defensive lineman was "the strongest guy on the team. He's got great speed; it's all there.''

But Hageman now understands that hype and physical ability don't translate to success, or even a starting position.

"I still have a lot to learn,'' said Hageman, currently a second-team defensive tackle. "And the people I'm playing with have been playing defensive line their whole life. This is my second year playing defense."

At 6-6 and 300 pounds, Hageman said the toughest adjustment has been learning to stay low against shorter, stockier centers and guards. He is still learning proper pad level, and how to use his hands, how to get off the ball and, on any given day, so much more.

"The hard part was he played defensive end [at the start] of last year, and then you move him inside," new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "It's a whole different ballgame, with the blocks you see. So that takes an adjustment."

Hageman is on the second team behind senior starters Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs. Hageman accepts his status, happy, he says, to still be a Gopher.

After Brewster was fired last season, interim coach Jeff Horton suspended Hageman for three games because of a lack of academic focus. That was hardly the way to make an impression on new coach Jerry Kill, a stickler for focus in all areas, be it academics or football fundamentals.

"Coach Kill could have kicked me off the team, but he gave me a second chance,'' Hageman said.

Eric Hageman, Ra'Shede's father, said he has seen a maturing process in the months since the suspension. Eric calls the hiring of Kill "a godsend" for his son, and the entire team.

"There's expectations for players now, and accountability," he said. "Those are things Ra'Shede needed."

On the field, Ra'Shede still measures his progress in baby steps, not by the leaping catches that once came so naturally.

"When I played tight end, I was more confident of where I stood. ... I was definitely looking at things from the top,'' Hageman said. "Now I'm definitely seeing things from the bottom. It's a hard grind, but I'm going to stay positive."

Claeys said Hageman this week made noticeable improvement despite playing with an injured hand.

"He'll get the opportunity to play when we play next Saturday [at USC in the season opener],'' Claeys said. "We'll run about four different packages, and we'll find a spot for him if he keeps working like he has this week.

"And if he keeps progressing like he has, I tell you he'll have a productive career here."

And for a player who once heard nothing but lavish praise, the prospect of being productive is music to his ears.

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