Imposing, that’s probably the best word to describe Ra’Shede Hageman. At 6’6’’ and 311 pounds, with tight end speed and leaping ability that would make the Gopher hoopsters jealous, few athletes can match the physical attributes possessed by the senior defensive tackle. If you ran into him on campus, you would think he was as kind as they come but when he hits the field he becomes a pretty scary individual. The full-cage and visor that grace his helmet, giving him a shocking resemblance to something you would see from a DC Comics villain, only adds to the intimidation factor.
“On the field, I’m very focused and determined to make plays,” said Hageman. “I’m just trying to channel my anger to make plays. Off the field I’m fine but on the field you don’t want to talk to me.”
Players and coaches alike have taken notice around the Big Ten, sending double teams Hageman’s way on most plays. Despite the extra attention, he was still able to bring down the opposing quarterback six times last season, good for second on the team behind D.L. Wilhite. Hageman’s name has been thrown around in NFL circles as well, with some seeing first round potential from the Minneapolis Washburn product. Ra’Shede knows that for that to happen, though, he needs to keep working constantly to reach his nearly unlimited potential.
“I’m definitely my own worst critic. Watching film or whatever, if I’m not making plays I take that real seriously and try to talk to the coaches and ask the coaches what I need to do to get better.”
The Gophers are also depending heavily on the senior to provide some leadership to a defense with fairly limited experience. Defensive Line Coach Jeff Phelps has already seen Hageman come through in this aspect.
“He’s taking care of business in the classroom,” said Phelps. “He’s doing the same thing here out on the field and in the community. He’s really showing himself to be a leader, not just of the defensive line but of the defense and of the team and that’s what we need. That’s what you need your seniors to do, you need them to step up. Once the one class graduates you need those next guys to step in and fill that void. He’s been dialed in, he’s a man on a mission. He wants to represent his home town and home school well.”
Although the towering defensive tackle has already made his home state proud, it seems clear that we have only witnessed the beginning of what he can do. With incredible physical gifts and a hunger to improve each day, the sky is truly the limit for Ra’Shede Hageman.
**Saturday's practice has been moved to Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex
Anyone who had not heard of West, Texas, before Wednesday night likely knows the name now because of the fertilizer plant explosion. But the tragedy hit particularly close for Gopher tight end Lincoln Plsek, who grew up in West.
“When something like that happens, you don’t ever expect it to be in your hometown, especially a town of 2,600 people,” Plsek said. “It was a shocking feeling. My heart goes out to the families and everyone who lost lives and were injured.”
Plsek found about the explosion when a friend texted him to ask if his family was okay. At first, he thought the friend was just trying to catch up and make small talk. But Plsek soon learned of the disaster.
“I was just frantically trying to text everybody I knew,” he said.
He sent a text message to his mom, who ended up calling him to say the family was alright. They had felt the blast at their home, which is about two miles from the plant. Plsek’s grandparents, who are also safe, did not know what had happened until they saw it on the news.
“They thought it was thunder, because a big storm was supposed to come in,” he said.
All Plsek’s friends and family members were located safely, but his cousin's friend had died. Between texting and watching the news, he stayed awake all night following along with what was happening in his hometown.
With the constant TV coverage, it was hard to avoid the video footage of the explosion.
“I watched it one time, couldn’t watch it again,” Plsek said. “It was too disturbing.”
Running on no sleep, Plsek participated in the Gophers’ 11th spring practice Thursday afternoon. He still had the people of West on his mind.
“Before the practice I just told myself, ‘I’m going to dedicate this practice to everyone who got hurt and everyone who died,’” he said.
Plsek has talked with team staff about the possibility of visiting Texas. His current plan is to stay in Minnesota until the semester ends, and then go home to be with his family and help rebuild his hometown.
The Gophers haven’t had a player rush for over 1,000 yards since Amir Pinnix passed the mark in 2006. Donnell Kirkwood could taste the milestone this past season but came up just 74 yards shy.
Despite falling short of the mark, Kirkwood established himself as the go to back for the Minnesota offense. The junior tailback led the team in rushing nine times this past season, passing the century mark three times. However, Kirkwood isn’t satisfied with those results, knowing that there is always room for improvement.
“I have got to work harder. Somebody is coming to be that starting running back. I want to continue to be that man and I have to continue to keep working.”
The journey has been an arduous one for the young running back. Kirkwood showed tremendous promise early in his collegiate career, seeing significant time in his true freshman season before succumbing to injury. After receiving a medical hardship waiver, the Delray Beach, Florida native was expecting big things once again but was hampered by a nagging hamstring injury, limiting his ability to produce. Now, finally having a full season under his belt, Kirkwood hopes he’s past his history of injury.
“I’m feeling great. During the season I don’t do certain things. During the springtime I don’t do certain things. I feel like it’s helping me.”
With a heavy reliance on the run game, Kirkwood’s health is imperative to the success of the offense. For the team to take another step and improve on last season’s results, Kirkwood very well may be needed to reach the 1,000 yard mark that has alluded Gopher rushers recently. Kirkwood, however, isn’t concerned with his individual statistics. His focus is on winning.
“I want my ring to be bigger than it was last year. I don’t want to be 6-6, I want to be 9-3 or 10-2.”
With the powerful tailback carrying the rock, that seems like a far less daunting task.