Ra'Shede Hageman is perhaps the premier attraction on the team as his final season for Minnesota begins, and that's not a surprise given the acclaim he carried as a recruit four years ago.
His journey here, to leader of the Gophers and pro prospect, has included plenty of unexpected turns. His unmistakable presence is a triumph in itself, even before he begins to pressure the passer this fall.
"I've just matured a lot. It's like night and day," said Hageman, who turned 23 this month. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound defensive tackle is on all the preseason All-Big Ten teams, and he's widely projected as a top-50 NFL draft pick, something this program hasn't produced in eight years.
"I kind of want to leave a legacy," Hageman said.
As a child, with his mother bedeviled by drugs and alcohol, Hageman was in and out of foster homes until a Minneapolis couple adopted him. Stable family life didn't automatically bring happiness, and he struggled with his identity as a black kid with well-to-do white parents.
Once he flourished as a football and basketball star at Washburn High School, about six miles south of the university, Hageman signed with the Gophers in 2009 as one of the country's most sought-after tight ends.
Overweight by the end of his redshirt season, Hageman was moved to defense for the following year. But his grades slipped badly enough he was ordered to sit out the last three games to focus on school. After making strides as a sophomore, Hageman was arrested for disorderly conduct, a charge that was later dropped, following a fight he was trying to break up at a campus bar.
Last season, Hageman finally broke through with six sacks while starting every game. With that imposing frame and enough athleticism to still be able to put down windmill dunks — "you'd be surprised what I can do with the ball," he said — Hageman is poised for a big finish. He's certain to face double teams despite an experienced group of defensive linemen around him, but if all that off-the-field drama didn't faze him an extra blocker sure won't.
"Ra'Shede is hungrier than he's ever been. Ra'Shede is more focused than he's ever been," safety Brock Vereen said. "And without announcing that to the team, everybody's noticed it. When you have a freak of nature like that who has the ability and makes the plays like he does, guys are naturally going to follow him."
When coach Jerry Kill took over the job in 2011, Hageman's place on the roster was tenuous. But he heeded the shape-up-or-ship-out warning, becoming more serious about studying and developing into a monster in the weight room. Hageman, too, has been active in community service, using his story of overcoming adversity to encourage city youth.
"I think he's in as good of shape and as focused as I've seen him since I've been here," Kill said. "So I think he understands how important it is and what kind of success we can have."
How about a double-digit sack total?
"I'm just trying to do what I can to help the team, obviously, but my personal goal, really, I think I could sleep better knowing I had 10-plus," Hageman said. "I know it's a big number, but the sky's the limit."
There's no limit to deadpan one-liners, either, from this soft-spoken guy playing with the pride of being the rare Minneapolis public school alumnus to star for the Gophers in the modern era.
"I'm not going to lie: I've spent a couple of days at Mesa Pizza," he said, referring to the popular late-night snack spot a few blocks from the football facility during a discussion about his weight, which is 50 pounds more than when he first came to campus.
"Getting too big and eating too much was a good thing. I feel like d-tackle chose me," Hageman said.
As for defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli, Hageman has declared his fellow senior starter "the brains of the operation." Hageman, naturally, is the strength.
"He does his job. He never messes up. He definitely helps me on the field when I get too tired or I don't know any of the plays, even though I'm supposed to," Hageman said, quietly adding: "Don't tell coach."
Kill won't mind. if Hageman keeps up his progress this fall.