The NFL draft isn’t always a showcase for Gophers players, or for standouts from state schools. Last year, 254 names were called without a Minnesota college represented.
That won’t be the case in 2014. At least three players, with starkly different profiles, will give local football fans something other than the Vikings to watch.
Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive back Brock Vereen, and Concordia (St. Paul) defensive end Zach Moore are expected to be chosen during the three-day draft. Each completed private workouts and visits before having a few days to unwind from that taxing process before finding where they’ll start their NFL stints.
“There are no words you can put into when your name gets called and you’re part of a team,” Hageman said. “That’s what every kid dreams about doing — playing football and finally going to the draft and having your name called.”
The Lock: Ra’Shede Hageman
You’d be hard-pressed to find another 6-6, 310-pound defensive tackle in the draft with Hageman’s ability, and it’s why he’s projected as a first-round pick. He is one of a record 30 prospects invited to New York City for the draft and has a chance to be the first Gophers player picked in the first round since running back Laurence Maroney in 2006, and the first Gophers defensive lineman to go in the first since Aaron Brown in 1966.
Hageman doesn’t want to return to Radio City Music Hall for Day 2 on Friday, but he’s ready for that possibility.
“I’m definitely preparing for the worst, just because,” Hageman said. “I’m not that person just to brag or think I’m going to go in the first round. I’m just soaking up the opportunity to be there. If I happen to go first round, so be it.”
Hageman, a tight end at Minneapolis Washburn who was converted to defense by the Gophers, could slide into the second round because of questions about his work ethic and consistency. Hageman acknowledged these flaws, and said he has been asked about them by NFL teams. He temporarily moved to Milwaukee to train during the draft process and focused on improving his conditioning and mobility.
“These are things I can change and have been working on,” Hageman said. “So when I get that chance, I can definitely prove them wrong and use that to my game. Everybody has flaws, you have to understand. The fact that you can address your flaws and know what your flaws are, that’s taking a step forward to changing them.”
Hageman will be surrounded at his draft table with people that assisted him in achieving this goal. With him will be his parents, Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle, who adopted Ra’Shede after he bounced around in foster care; his younger brother, Xavier; his Washburn coach, Giovan Jenkins; and Gophers coach Jerry Kill.
The All-Big Ten first-team player doesn’t know how he’ll react when he shakes NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s hand.
“I might be emotional, I don’t know,” Hageman said. “Nothing that big has ever happened to me.
“If it wasn’t for my parents and playing sports, I really don’t know where I’d be. Every day you have to be thankful for where you are because there are some friends and teammates with the same opportunities that didn’t take it.”
The Sleeper: Brock Vereen
Vereen was viewed as a Day 3 prospect at the start of the draft process until he aced his biggest test at the NFL combine. The Gophers standout posted the second-fastest 40-yard-dash time for a safety at 4.47 seconds and led all defensive backs with 25 bench press repetitions at 225 pounds.
“When you watch him on tape, his versatility to play safety and then you’ve seen him play some nickel and then, at the end of the season, you seen him play corner … and you see just how smart he is and aware he is when you watch the tape,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said at the Gophers Pro Day on March 3. “And then he goes to the combine and blows out a 40 … that really opened a lot of people’s eyes.”
Vereen’s versatility was his biggest sell until the combine. With his combine numbers, some think he could sneak into the third round. While he wouldn’t disclose which ones, the 6-foot, 200-pounder said he’s had 10 private workouts and/or visits with NFL teams.
His brother, Patriots running back Shane Vereen, warned him about how difficult the draft process will be and, at times, Brock said he lost sight of Shane’s biggest advice.
“He told me to have fun with the process and to really feel grateful to even be in this position in the first place,” Brock said. “It’s been a long process, that’s for sure. These four months felt like years.”
Brock will watch the draft with his family in California. His father, Henry, was drafted in the ninth round by Tampa Bay in 1979 before playing in the Canadian Football League. Shane, who went to Cal, entered the league in 2011 as the Patriots’ second-round choice. Mother Venita was a standout tennis player at UNLV, where she met Henry, and Brock described his childhood as competitive in an athletic environment. His favorite sport in elementary school was baseball, but he ditched it because it was “too sluggish” and focused on football when he was 12.
It turned out to be a good choice.
“It’s just a dream come true,” said Vereen about being an NFL draft pick. “A humbling moment to reflect on all the hard work it took to get to that point, but also a clean slate for what will hopefully be a long career.”
The Long Shot: Zach Moore
Most of the country will scratch their heads if Moore gets drafted, since he’s one of the obscure names that tend to pop up every year in later rounds. Concordia (St. Paul) hasn’t had a player taken in the NFL draft in the 45-year history of its football program.
Moore, who had a school-record 33 sacks at Concordia, was also the first Golden Bear to be invited to the combine. The 6-5, 269-pound defensive end ran the 40 in 4.84 seconds and posted a 10-yard split, which measures explosiveness off the snap, of 1.56 seconds. Moore felt satisfied by the performance.
The Chicago native had ambitions of playing Division I football coming out of Simeon Career Academy, where he went to school with Bulls point guard Derrick Rose and Cowboys linebacker Martez Wilson, but Moore didn’t qualify academically. He was referred to Concordia by one of the college coaches recruiting him out of high school.
“I thought I would transfer, but when I got to Concordia I met a lot of great people, great professors, loved the coaching staff and developed some good relationships,” said Moore, who sat out one season because of academic ineligibility. “I wanted to give a small school a voice. It was a pretty good five years.”
Moore learned to play in different types of defenses at Concordia, but the three-time all-NSIC player has constantly been asked about the level of competition at Division II.
“People fail to realize that there’s competition at every level,” Moore said. “Just because it’s not publicized or broadcast on TV like some of these D-I schools, to me really it’s not that big of an adjustment.”
Moore will be watching the draft as the pride of not only Concordia but his family and neighborhood. He grew up in south Chicago in the Bronzeville district, which was once known as a hotbed for singers such as Lou Rawls and Sam Cooke. The area now evokes negative connotations along with the rest of south Chicago — gang violence, drugs and poverty. Moore said he didn’t have much growing up, but gave credit to his parents for properly guiding him.
“It’s hard to put that feeling into words,” Moore said. “It means much more to me that I’m representing not only myself but the school, the football [team], my family back home, Simeon High School and a lot of other things.”