MINNEAPOLIS — Opposing quarterbacks have rarely had to look across the line of scrimmage at the Minnesota defensive line with anything to fear. The Golden Gophers have for years fielded an undersized group that couldn't find a sack in a grocery store.
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, remarkably 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."
Hageman needed a lot of coaching after coming from the Minneapolis City Conference, an urban conference that has struggled for years with a lack of funding for athletics. So when he arrived on campus at Minnesota, he was initially overwhelmed.
"It's been a big step and I had to get used to it for the first two years that I've been here," Hageman said. "I thought it was going to be much smoother."
The transition has been hastened by a rare combination of size, speed and power. Now he is starting to understand how to harness those gifts and use them to dominate overmatched opponents.
"Ra'Shede has certainly learned to play defensive tackle, and his best years are way ahead of him," Kill said. "He's still learning, but he's continued to get better, and athletically he's gifted, a gifted young man."
Now that he's starting to play better, Hageman is dealing with more attention from opposing offensive lines.
"I hate double teams," Hageman said. "I see them all the time."
He better get used to them.
Hageman was suspended in 2010 for academic issues and arrested this summer during an alleged altercation at a bar, but those charges were dropped. Now he is hoping his success on the field will open doors for other high school players in Minneapolis that they can make it to the Big Ten.
"We definitely have talent in the city," Hageman said. "I preach about that all the time. It's just about us giving the youth a chance. I definitely go back to my high school and just show up. Me being there (motivates) kids to work harder on their athletics and their school."
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