CHICAGO — At 6 feet 6 inches and 311 pounds, Gophers senior defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman is a big man.
Entering the 2013 season, the expectations placed on him might be even bigger.
Hageman has already been named to numerous watch lists for college football postseason awards. He ranked No. 2 on CBSSports.com’s “Freaks List” in May, which looks at the most athletic players in college football.
Hageman said the preseason attention creates more pressure for him to perform but also drives him.
“Just the fact that people obviously have their eyes on you kind of teaches me to just do better,” he said.
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney ranked No. 1 on the “Freaks List.” Clowney is also No. 1 on ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper’s big board for the 2014 NFL draft.
Hageman said Clowney is the only player he thinks about in training.
“He’s on top. He’s making news. He’s on ESPN,” he said. “It’s not like I want to be like him, but I want to be better than him.”
Hageman compiled six sacks and 35 tackles in 2012, earning him an honorable mention in the All-Big Ten selection.
Those numbers are impressive, but most projected NFL draft picks have more to show. Hageman’s early honors and expectations are more of a reflection of his playmaking potential, which stems from his athletic ability. He has previously demonstrated a 36-inch vertical jump.
Gophers senior safety Brock Vereen said Hageman has taken a more focused approach to his improvement this offseason.
“He’s hungrier than he’s ever been, and he has the physical tools for it, obviously,” Vereen said. “It’s going to be scary to see how he can do.”
Hageman is still an unfinished product. Basketball was his first love growing up, he said, but he fouled out too often, so he decided he needed a new sport.
He arrived at the University of Minnesota as a tight end but was moved to the defensive line during his redshirt season in 2009. He’s still growing into that role, but he’s already become one of the nation’s best at it.
“I think that’s why everybody’s excited,” Gophers head coach Jerry Kill said. “He is a raw talent, and he’s going to get better this year. ... His upside is tremendous.”
Hageman said he finally started to get more comfortable at defensive tackle last season.
The Minneapolis native has earned the respect of opponents across the Big Ten as well.
“I think he’s one of the better [defensive] linemen I’ve played against all year,” Michigan State University guard Blake Treadwell said. “I feel like he’s going to do a lot of damage this year.”
Hageman said he’s more confident in his playmaking abilities this year and is focused on improving his sack total.
Along with the preseason honors, Hageman is gaining attention from NFL scouts. Kiper lists him just outside the top five draft prospects at defensive tackle.
Hageman said the NFL is always in the back of his mind.
“The fact that [I] have scouts looking at me kind of motivates me to do better,” he said. “I’m definitely always kind of amped to see scouts and just hear about that.”