'Locked-in' Hageman ready for big things

Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman long has had the potential to be a major star. Experience, focus and technique were all that separated the potential from the actual.

Now, all of those things seem to be coming together for the senior defensive tackle. Which make his big dreams start to sound like realistic ambitions.

"My main goal is to try and stand out this year, and then get into the first or second round [in the 2014 NFL draft]," Hageman told ESPN.com.

Hageman briefly considered coming out for the draft after his junior year but ultimately decided that he still had a lot to improve. He hasn't wasted any time making sure that was the right choice.

Head coach Jerry Kill recently said that Hageman was "locked in" this offseason. Teammates have noticed a difference as well.

"From off the field to the weight room, in everything he does there's a heightened level of concentration," Gophers safety Brock Vereen said. "You can tell he's hungrier than he's ever been and more focused than he's ever been."

The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Hageman bench pressed 475 pounds this winter, up about 50 pounds from his previous high. He also squatted over 500 pounds.

"I was in the weight room before everyone got there and was the last one out," he said. "I wanted to get a lot stronger, and I did that."

During spring drills, Hageman said he's trying to attack every rep with abandon.

"This is my last year, so I don't want to have any regrets about not going hard or not being physical enough," he said. "I'm trying to make as many plays as I can, and that all starts in the spring, the winter and the summer before the fall."

Hageman has always had breathtaking physical skills -- he has a vertical leap of 37 inches -- but not always a home on the field. He was recruited as a tight end and was switched early in his career to defensive end before making the move to defensive tackle. Last season was his first as a full-time starter, and he responded with 35 tackles and six sacks.

It took him a while to learn the intricacies of playing tackle, but now he says "I've developed an appetite for it."

"I have the physical abilities," he said. "I just had to get used to playing D-line and catching up on my technique. I am a little behind, especially versus kids who've been playing defensive tackle their whole life."

But he's catching up quickly. Hageman gained confidence from last year's performance, including the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas when he had six tackles and a sack versus Texas Tech. He's working on keeping his pad level low -- not always easy for a guy his size -- and getting off the ball more quickly. With defensive end D.L. Wilhite gone and new faces at linebacker, he knows others are looking for him to lead the Minnesota front seven.

If he can do those things, he should be an All-Big Ten performer and skyrocket up NFL draft boards next year. Potential and actual could merge.

"I'm just more comfortable with myself and with the main operation at D-tackle now," he said. "I'm ready to put my own swagger on it.