Jon Krawczynski / Associated Press, Published September 11 2012
Gophers have seen pass rush improvement
Ra’Shede Hageman is changing all that.
The redshirt junior stands 6-foot-6 and weighs more than 300 pounds, casting the kind of menacing presence usually reserved for tackles at power schools like Ohio State, Michigan and Alabama.
“I’m just thankful that he’s on our team,” quarterback MarQueis Gray said Tuesday. “I don’t think there’s anyone as big as him that we’re going to play against.”
For the Gophers, who have been one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten for years, to have such an imposing athlete on their side for once is a sign of progress in and of itself. And a couple years into his conversion from tight end, Hageman is starting to play like a defensive lineman and not just look like one. He has three of the Gophers’ six sacks in the first two games, and the front four as a whole have put more pressure on the quarterback this season than they did for most of last year.
The Gophers beat UNLV and New Hampshire in the first two weeks, games that a team from the Big Ten should win, but games they’ve had difficulty winning in the past nonetheless. Putting heat on the quarterback has been a big part of both victories.
“The more pressure you can put on a quarterback, the more uncomfortable they’re going to get,” coach Jerry Kill said. “We never let anybody get comfortable last Saturday.”
Minnesota had just 19 sacks all of last season and in this day and age of pass-heavy offenses, has had just one player record double-digit sacks since 2000.
Hageman didn’t register a sack for the first 11 games last season, picking up two in the season finale to get on the board. Defensive end D.L. Wilhite has 2½ sacks this season after getting only three last year. Minnesota will need to continue that performance on Saturday against Western Michigan, which ranks first in the MAC and 13th in the nation with 333.5 yards passing per game.
“My whole mentality is just get to the quarterback,” Hageman said. “Plain and simple, no ifs, ands or buts. I’m not trying to think too much. I’m trying to make things simple and get to the quarterback as soon as I can.”
The transition from offense to defense hasn’t always been a smooth one for Hageman, who was a highly touted tight end recruit out of Minneapolis Washburn High School. He struggled early to keep his pads low in the run game, too often standing straight up too quickly, which allowed smaller defensive lineman to neutralize his size and speed.
“The whole change kind of messed with me physically and mentally and I had to overcome it,” he said. “Just find a way to get over it.”