Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Curious Case of Hypus Prime

It can be argued that the last time there was true optimism from the general Minnesota population for their Gopher football team was Tim Brewster's second season in the fall of 2008.  The team started 7-1 and climbed to #19 in the AP rankings.  After a false start in 2007 the enthusiastic coach brought in what appeared to be one of the better recruiting classes in the nation, according to Rivals.com.  Along with Glen Mason holdovers, three key junior college additions led our Gophers to wins over some of the worst teams ever to grace our rodents' schedule.  The team edged a Jerry Kill-led Northern Illinois team, then flattened Bowling Green, Montana, and Florida Atlantic before losing at Ohio State.  The locals then beat three horrible Big Ten teams, including a quarterback-less Purdue squad to gain their seventh and final win.

Except to confused and desperately hopeful fans, the truth was the 2008 Gopher edition benefited from a feather-soft schedule and good share of luck to that point, and our Gophers may well be the worst midseason #19 team ever.  The team, though, was playing with confidence, had perhaps the best receiver in the nation in Eric Decker, and pieced together a solid defense led by new coordinator Ted Roof.  Further, recruiting was going well, at least online with Rivals.  Recruitng genius Brewster had corralled the 16th best QB in the nation in Bloomington's Moses Alipate, the 41st tackle in Josh Campion, 24th RB Hasan Lipscomb, the 35th and 52nd best athletes (Kendall Gregory-Mcghee and Bryant Allen), and a four star juco receiver in Hayo Carpenter.  Further, there was talk the 12th-ranked CB Michael Carter would switch his commitment from West Virginia.  So when the Gophers dropped two home games in a row to fall to 7-3, the mood was still mostly hopeful, especially when one day after losing to a mediocre Michigan squad, the faithful got news that the 6th-ranked tight end in the country decided to stay home in Minneapolis.  Washburn's own Ra'Shede Hageman was going to be a Gopher.

The 6-6, 250 pound Hageman not only chose Minnesota, he chose the U over helmet schools like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Florida.  He chose us.  Hageman just oozed potential at tight end or, more likely, on the defensive line.  He was big and athletic, a basketball player.  He had room to grow, and he was naturally strong and fast for his size.  Despite the two-game slide at the time, Hageman's commitment represented the high point of the Brewster regime, which unraveled quickly even with a new stadium to celebrate.

Hageman's celebrity, like that of may recruits, slowly vaporized with a redshirt his freshman 2009 season, highlighted only by his move from tight end to defensive end:
''He's a big, physical guy,'' Brewster said. ''He's really shown some natural abilities as a defensive end. ...For us to become an elite defense, which we want to become, you have to take athletes like that and expose them to the defensive side of the ball. We'll see how it works.''
Brewster said the physical requirements for the two positions are similar. ''You want quick-twitch guys who do a good job of getting off the ball and use their hands,'' he said. ''He's shown a knack for doing that.''
The following year as a redshirt freshman, Hageman was again talked up but played sparingly after moving to defensive tackle, and soon after Brewster was fired, he was suspended by interim coach Jeff Horton for academic issues.  Seven weeks later, Jerry Kill became the new sheriff in town, and he challenged all his players to become better people and better students.  Hageman responded positively.

He also looked awfully good on a bus full of undersized, less athletic teammates.  Now nearly 300 pounds of muscle, Hageman impressed all watching and reporting on Spring Practice 2011 as the one Gopher who looked like all those Ohio State guys.  Reports glowed that he was doing well against the Gopher offensive linemen and to watch for him in the fall.  The Gopher fanatics got excited.  I got excited. 

It became clear rather quickly that Kill's first squad in 2011 was overmatched.  The team was well below average at nearly every position on the field.  It could be argued, though, that defensive tackle was one of the few positions the Gophers had some quality.  Seniors Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs were both highly recruited and had played well leading up to that year.  While their season, especially Kirksey's, wasn't dominating, the two stayed on the field.  Their back-ups, redshirt soph Hageman and redshirt freshman Cameron Botticelli, saw little action.  I didn't really notice either too much until the season finale.

The Gophers were having a tough season in 2011, but it was nothing compared to what Illinois was experiencing.  For the last game of the year, the Illini brought a lame duck coach and nothing else to TCF Bank Stadium except ineptitude and mistakes.  The Gophers dominated the game, and I was especially impressed when I saw Ra'Shede Hageman destroy the opposing QB.  Awesome, this is what we have to look forward to in 2012!  And then came the instant replay.  It turns out an Illini guard missed his assignment, and there was nobody to block Hageman.  Oh, well.  Then it happened again.  Again I didn't notice at first, but the replay showed once more a completely unblocked Hageman getting his second sack of the day.  Two tackles, both sacks.  So the extent of his production this day was all due to missed assignments.  Who could possibly misinterpret that?

Apparently those wearing maroon-colored glasses can see whatever they want to see, because the talk of the Gopher internet boards after the game was Ra'Shede Hageman and his destruction of Ilinois.  I made mention that he wasn't blocked on either play and he had no other tackles, a truth that only vilified me amid the rapture.  But, but...I'm watching those two plays as we speak, how can you argue with me?  I pointed out that his one other tackle for loss on the season was also due to a missed assignment by an Iowa guard.  That didn't help me.  My point wasn't that Hageman wasn't going to be good his last two years, it was that we had zero evidence of him making anything happen thus far.  He was a man of opportunity, obviously.  He hadn't played much, and he didn't have any real experience at DT.  Perhaps he'd be decent in 2012.

Spring Practice 2012 brought familiar praise for Hageman.  The moderators/reporters/spectators on Gopher Illustrated tossed out phrases like "man among boys" and such.  The nickname Optimus Prime was thrown about.  I was intrigued and couldn't wait for the season, especially when I read this during fall practice:
No Gopher discussed on the preview show received higher praise than junior defensive tackle Ra’Shede HagemanGriffith doesn’t believe any center in the Big Ten can block Hageman who was outstanding in Minnesota’s final game last season against Illinois and has continued to progress.  “In my mind he’s going to be tough to block for anybody,” Griffith said. 
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys told the Big Ten Network that Hageman, a former tight end, is now understanding the demands of his position.  “There’s not a better athlete in the United States playing d-tackle than what Ra’Shede Hageman is,” Claeys said.  “The more he continues to learn the game, the better off I think he will be.”
I was a little concerned, though.  After all, Griffith was saying Hageman was outstanding against Illinois, and I knew that to be untrue.  I was intrigued, but I was also very suspect.  The 2012 opener against UNLV was coming up, and I decided I would watch the game, then the next day I would re-watch each play in slow motion.  Optimus Prime would be under scrutiny.  I kept an eye on Hageman throughout my initial viewing, and it was soon apparent he wasn't doing anything at all.  On the other hand, newcomer Roland Johnson was creating chaos in the UNLV backfield.  They couldn't contain Johnson even with double teams.  Meanwhile, Hageman wasn't getting any penetration, and while he'd been double-teamed early, the UNLV line soon learned they could handle him with one lineman.  Easily.  On replay, in slow-motion, it was obvious that while certainly "no center in the Big Ten could block him" the one at UNLV sure could.

On pass plays the UNLV lineman naturally backed up 2-3 yards and defended their quarterback.  But while Roland Johnson and DL Wilhite and others were breaking through, wreaking havoc and constantly pressuring the QB, Hageman wasn't close to the play.  He happened to record a sack when his linemates flushed the UNLV quarterback, and the man blocking Hageman still at the point of contact lost our hero, who ran toward the near sideline and nabbed the QB for a three yard loss.  On running plays Hageman was often blown back behind the linebackers or off to the side away from the play.  At first there were double-teams, but that quickly changed, and when the play actually called for a double down on the DT, the extra UNLV lineman would brush off Hageman and go block another.

I was absolutely shocked and figured this had to be evident to the internet boards.  It wasn't.  No one wanted to believe Ra'Shede Hageman had played poorly.  It made no sense to me.  Certainly, this being an away game, they still have it on their DVRs and can watch, right?  Apparently not.  I graded out three players as having really poor performances that night: Hageman, OT Ed Olson, and WR Marcus Jones.  I gave Marqueis Gray a "barely pass," and the rest of the team actually played okay or well, in my opinion.  Well for a team that hadn't bowled for three seasons, that is.

I repeated the effort over the next eleven regular season games and the bowl game.  I watched Hageman get destroyed every week, almost exclusively by one blocker.  His problem was obvious.  When the ball snapped, Hageman nearly stood up, and the opposing lineman would leverage the hell out of him.  This wasn't new to me, as Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys both had said repeatedly he needed to get his pad level low.  What I didn't expect was complimentary comments from the coaching staff about Hageman.  Almost every week.  What the heck?  I can tell the difference between someone playing well and someone getting blown off the line.  So what was going on here?  And that's when I realized all the comments had something in common.  They talked about him glowingly, they avoided talking about his play:
"Ra'Shede has certainly learned how to play defensive tackle," Kill said Tuesday. "His best years are way ahead of him. He's still learning. But he's continued to get better. Athletically, he's gifted; a gifted young man."   --Kill prior to Syracuse
 Yeah, but what about his actual play?  It's okay to say he made some great plays.  You say it about others.  Unless, of course, his play is not actually good.  And then this after Syracuse:
"He could arguably be the most talented defensive lineman in the conference," Big Ten Network analyst Howard Griffith said of Hageman. "If he plays the way he's supposed to, he has 'first-round pick' all over him. He just has that type of talent. But a lot of the things he does particularly well, when the Big Ten rolls around, might not show up in the stat sheet. So you have to have other guys step up and make plays."
Yeah, but what about his play?  Did you watch him against Syracuse?  I did.  He had an okay day for him, but it was not close to his hype, and it, well, simply was not good for a college lineman.  Meanwhile, Hageman's backup at DT, true freshman Scott Ekpe, had shown some flashes of true talent through the first four games.  My blogging is very sporadic, but my Gopher fandom is constant;  I want to win, I wanted Ekpe in the game.  I didn't need more material for a future blog entry.  Play Ekpe more, I said.

The Gophers still hadn't played a smash-mouth football game, and they clearly weren't as prepared as Iowa in Iowa City.  Iowa had faced a tough Iowa State team already.  The Hawkeyes were ready and made Hageman look like a high schooler.  The poor guy was trying, but the Hawkeyes ran right through him.  It didn't stop there.  Other teams the following weeks dominated Hageman.  He gave top effort throughout the Big Ten season, and the coaches continued to talk about his athleticism and pro potential, but glaringly missing were favorable comments about his play.  Ekpe also struggled as the competition got tougher, but Ekpe isn't being declared one of the best players in the conference.

The previous link, by the way, includes a video which is a perfect example of how Hageman was able to pick up six sacks in 2012.  On this one, the Wisconsin lineman across from him bumps Hageman then leaves him to get out ahead of the screen.  Roland Johnson and DL Wilhite hold up the running back, and the QB has to eat the ball.  Hageman is untouched to the QB after the initial bump.  The other sacks and TFLs  he had in 2012 were almost all either QB scrambles, with Hageman waiting near the LOS, plays like in the video, or simply due to missed assignments.

I don't profess to know everything, but I know when a player is getting beat nearly every play, and Hageman in 2012 fit that description.  I felt bad for pointing it out at the time.  I've got nothing against Hageman or even delusional Gopher fans, but the truth was evident in 2012.  I don't have a link or remember which game, but finally Hageman made a really good play late in the season.  I now figured we wouldn't hear much, because everyone seemed to think he was doing well the whole year.  I was wrong.  Tracy Claeys pointed to the play Hageman made and made it clear on that play that Hageman had done well.  It was the first comment I'd heard all year about his play and not about his potential.  The game escapes me, the exception to the rule doesn't.  I also was thoroughly impressed by one play against Texas Tech in the bowl, where Hageman lined up on the outside and had a chance to take a couple of steps and gain momentum.  He knocked the Tech tackle on his butt and got to the QB, though I can't remember if it was a pressure or the one sack he was credited with that game.  He disrupted the opponent, finally, something I would expect about 20 times a game from a guy who gets as much attention as Hageman gets.

Based on the 2012 season, I didn't even know whether Hageman would start this year.  So you can imagine my surprise when talk of entering the 2013 NFL Draft started to leak.  First off, why would an NFL team want a player who was getting punished nearly every play?  Then I found why:

Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota, DT: The 6-6, 312-pound converted tight end vertical jumped 36 inches this offseason when the Gophers tested him. More impressively, the former basketball standout (he used to play AAU ball against first-rounder Royce White) says he can still do a 360 dunk even though he's well over three bills. "But," Hageman adds, "it doesn't look as pretty as when I was 250."
Ra'Shede Hageman, a former hoops standout, can still do a 360 slam dunk at 312 pounds. (USATSI)Ra'Shede Hageman, a former hoops standout, can still do a 360 slam dunk at 312 pounds. (USATSI)Hageman was a big recruit for former coach Tim Brewster. Then-Gophers hoops coach Tubby Smith once tried to get him to come out for the basketball team, Hageman says. But the big man opted to focus solely on football, where he has blossomed into one of the Big Ten's better D-linemen.He's certainly the most athletic. Not only does he have the 36-inch vert, but he also has bench-pressed 465 pounds and clocked an electronically timed 10-yard sprint in 1.57 seconds. For comparison sake, no DT at this year's NFL Combine jumped higher than 33 inches, and Terron Armstead, the offensive tackle who ran the blazing 4.71 40 at the combine, did a 1.64 in his 10.
Hageman said watching the combine in February has "motivated me to be even get more serious in the weight room." His goals on the field for 2013: play with better pad level, play with more urgency off the ball and not take plays off.
And look at that picture.  Wow.

Still, it's crazy to think any NFL team would want someone who gets beat most plays, right?  I can only imagine the eyebrows that were raised in the coaches' meeting this past winter.  But coaches know they have competing worries here, they got Hageman his NFL evaluation, and, well, this staff is pretty good at being tactful:
"That's kind of the benefit from it," Claeys said. "I think the NFL does a great job with that. They don't push kids to go too early like some of the other pro sports. We're waiting to get that form back for Ra'Shede and see what it says. You've got to do what's best for everybody involved. We'll do it for any player who requests us to come and do it and wants to be evaluated. But Ra'Shede is somebody, when the scouts show up, they've taken a look at."  
This was Claeys' one comment on Hageman for the article.  Nowhere does he say what would obviously be included by Marcus Fuller, that he's a heck of a player.  Because he's not.  So much for the evaluation, Hageman is still here, and the hype of Hypus Prime has gotten worse.  On Friday night the Big Ten Network did its 2013 preview of Minnesota.  Two messages I took from the preview.  One is that they truly expect Minnesota to keep getting better.  They love Jerry Kill.  Second, I got the feeling they didn't put a whole lot of effort into Minnesota, which could have to do with the Gophers being their 10th stop.  They talked about Nelson and Hageman and let the coordinators talk about anything else.  The Hageman talk made me wince:
Got some good offseason news on defense when Ra'Shede Hageman decided to come back for his final season.  Hageman a very athletic defensive tackle, the leader of a defense that improved by leaps and bounds last season.--Gerry DiNardo
 Yes, Gerry, that was a real danger.  Whew!
"Me being double-teamed as much as I hate it is, you know, I'm definitely looking out for the LBs to come down here and make plays, and when that happens, I definitely feel like the LBs are making plays." --Ra'Shede Hageman
All I can say is that I don't want to speak to the camera, so I can imagine others might feel the same way.  It is pretty obvious, though, that Hageman was advised to talk about getting double-teamed.  Or perhaps he was asked about double-team among other questions, and that's the only answer BTN showed. 
"It all has to start up front, and we talk about Hageman really being able to be the mainstay of that defensive line, commanding double teams, forcing people to account for him on the blocking scheme..." --Howard Griffith
He doesn't command double teams any more than any DT would naturally.  There are plays where you double on the DT.  The problem is that with Hageman, the second lineman can slip off to a linebacker.  Or I should say, that was the problem last year.  People hate it when I say Hageman played poorly last year, and they project me as hating him and thinking he can't play well at all..  That's not true.  I think he has the physical ability to play really well.  Just like the coaches do.

And maybe I was too harsh about his 2012 season.  Maybe one more look would give me a different perspective.  After the preview show, the Big Ten Network replayed the 2012 Purdue at Minnesota game.  I decided to track each defensive play for a half and transcribe what I saw here.  Here's what I saw of Ra'Shede Hageman or his backup Scott Ekpe, play by play:

Play 1: From UM 46, pass, single-team, Hageman was the only DL to not have penetration, incomplete
Play 2.: From UM 46, run, double team, Hageman blown back five yards, RB goes 40 yards through his hole
Play 3: From UM 6, run, single-team, blown out five yards, RB hit his hole
Play 4: From UM 3, jumps offsides and knocks down guard, penalty
Play 5: From UM 1, run, double team, runner up middle stopped at LOS, Hageman ends up in end zone three yards away (holdin on PU away from Hageman)
Play 6: From UM 11, screen, Hageman let go, he follows the motion away from the play.
Play 7: From UM 1, play action pass, penetrated and was picked up by a RB.  Can't be sure it was Hageman as I couldn't see the number.

Next series:
Play 1: From PU 11, run, double teamed, pushed back to the 15
Play 2: From PU 14, pass, single team, Hageman blows his guy back into the QB after throw on an incompletion.  Unfortnuately, I'm only guessing it was Hageman, number wasn't visible (and Roland Johnson replaced Botticelli at other tackle, so it could have been Ekpe).
Play 3: From PU 14, pass, no penetration

Next series:
Play 1: From PU 25, run, single team, pushed out of play, run up his hole
Play 2: From PU 36, false start offense
Play 3: From PU 31, run, Ekpe in for him and stands up his man and pushes action toward RB
Play 4: From PU 32, pass, Ekpe doubled and doesn't penetrate, incomplete
Play 5: From PU 32, screen pass, Hageman neither penetration nor close to play

Next series:
Play 1: From  PU 25, pass, Ekpe in, sack by Cockran, Ekpe no penetration
Play 2: From PU 25, run, Ekpe double and not a factor
Play 3: From PU 24, pass, Hageman did something inexplicable, he decided not to rush, not to drop, not to stunt.  He just stood up and ran half-speed avoiding the OL and well away from the play.
Play 4.: From UM 44, pass, single team, no where near the QB

Next series was skipped on BTN
Next series (UM 31, PU 7 at this point)
Play 1: From PU 18, (in with Roland Johnson), pass, single team, only DL to not penetrate
Play 2: From PU 21, sweep, single team, buried in middle of line
Play 3: From PU 28, run, double team, blown out, but at least the two OL stayed with him
Play 4: From PU 29, pitch, single team, taken out of play easily
Play 5: From PU 35, pass, Ekpe in, doesn't penetrate

Except for one play where I can't verify it was actually him, Hageman could just as well not been on the field.  I don't know what happened the one series BTN skipped, but it's basically irrelevant.  Hageman was bad here. Not just bad, but really bad.  Anybody could have been put in his place.  This is what I saw all year, running the video play by play.  I saw him make some tackles when plays broke, when the OL assigned to him didn't know what was happening.  I remember him disrupting the opponent maybe twice all year.  Roland Johnson did that on his first two plays against UNLV.

Meanwhile, Hageman has been named to the Chuck Bednarik, Bronko Nagurski, Outland Trophy, and Rotary Lombardi watch lists.  He ranks 15th in ESPN's top 25 Big Ten players heading into the 2013 season, 11th on BTN.  There's a gap between what I'm seeing and what's being implied.  That much is clear.  There is not a gap, though, between what I'm seeing and what is overtly said.

So I made an hypothesis, and while I don't think I've proven my curious case, it's hard to argue that your favorite guy is doing well when I'm watching him get blown out play after play.  I really hope Hageman has a great senior year and that he gets drafted high and represents Minnesota well.  All I hear is how hard he works and how he leads others to do so and how he's a great teammate.  How can you not cheer for a guy like that?

Sid Hartman ran a quote from Jerry Kill that really sums up this piece.  While he calls others on the line great football players, he does everything but with Hageman:
“There is no question that Ra’Shede Hageman is a phenomenon when it comes to his size, strength and speed,” Gophers football coach Jerry Kill said when asked how he looks at his defensive tackle.
“We need to have him have a great year,” Kill continued. “But I think he is also surrounded with some pretty great football players. Sometimes we forget Cameron Botticelli and Roland Johnsonand Thieren Cockran and Michael Amaefula, those kids. T.C. is 6-6 and about 255-260 now.
“I think our whole defensive line has improved. Part of that has been because of Ra’Shede’s hard work and his attitude. He has had a great, great summer and a great camp. So we look forward to continuing to watch his progress, because if he does what he needs to do and plays well, he’s one class away from graduating and it’s a good story. There’s no question about that.”

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