Jerry Kill is not prone to hyperbole or hype. He doesn't hang unrealistic expectations around the neck of any player.

The Gophers football coach probably finds it tempting, though, every time he sees Ra'Shede Hageman run onto the field.

"There's not many people physically that's walking around like that," Kill acknowledged.

Hageman sure looks the part. He looks like a big-time defensive tackle should, like they do at Ohio State and Michigan and any other top college program. Hageman is a chiseled specimen, 6-6 and 305 pounds, with little body fat and a 36-inch vertical jump.

Kill should ask Hageman to lead the team off the bus before every road game. He's that physically impressive.

"That's an explosive big man," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said.

But here's the rub: Can Hageman's performance match his appearance? Can he dominate on a consistent basis and not just show flashes of it? That's still unknown.

Nobody questions whether Hageman, a junior from Minneapolis, has the necessary physical attributes and natural athletic ability to develop into an elite lineman. That's easy to see. Now he just needs to harness it, continue to mature as a player and understand that his potential is limitless if he works hard at it.

"It's untapped right now," Kill said.

The optimism stems from Hageman's increased comfort level after switching from tight end early in his career. Like any player learning a new position, he endured some tough moments, felt lost at times.

Hageman feels like a defensive tackle now. He has a better understanding of the techniques, gap assignments and demands of the position. He realizes that double teams, cut blocks and dirty work simply come with the territory and can't trigger frustration and a loss of focus.

"Sometimes after the game you're three inches shorter because you've been doubled so much," Claeys said. "It's not an easy job."

Hageman understands that now. He's no longer new to the position so naturally expectations change, especially for a guy with his size and athletic ability.

"It's on me now," he said. "I take full responsibility for what happens to me."

Hageman turned a corner late in his sophomore season. He started to flash more in practice and games. The game slowed down and everything started to make sense. As Kill describes it, "the lightbulb just went on."

Hageman punctuated it by collecting two sacks and a forced fumble against Illinois in the season finale. His performance reinforced the belief that he could impact the game as a disruptive inside pass rusher.

"That boosted my confidence going into this year," he said. "It really showed how far I could climb. It lifted my spirits and motivated me to do the same."

The Gophers believe Hageman has a chance to blossom into a force on the defensive line, which is a foreign concept to the program. The Gophers haven't produced a defensive lineman feared by opposing offenses and coaches since Lamanzer Williams and Karon Riley in the late 1990s. In recent years, Willie VanDeSteeg earned all-conference honors and Anthony Montgomery had a few nice moments, but the list of distinguished performers at that position is fairly short.

The Gophers never will attract too many blue-chip defensive line prospects because those guys are in short supply and have their choice of schools. Instead, they must identify players who are undersized or raw and then develop them over the years.

Hageman fits that mold. He started as a tight end, changed positions and now has two seasons to showcase his talent.

"His upside is tremendously high," Claeys said. "You don't find very many kids [with his size and athleticism]. They make a lot of money in the NFL because it's hard to find those guys. We're very fortunate to have him. He has a great attitude and as long as he continues to work hard, he's going to see the benefits."

Hageman hears that buzz and realizes expectations are higher. Yes, he looks intimidating in a football uniform. He knows that means nothing, however, if he doesn't play like it, too.

"I'm not hyping myself up," he said. "I'll just let my play do the talking."

Chip Scoggins •