In preparation for the 2014 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run
until the start of the college football season.
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill enters his third year with a 9-13 record over his first two seasons, but having improved the program to six wins and a bowl birth (Meineke Car Care Bowl) in 2012 from only 3 wins the year prior. Despite there being nothing set in stone yet at the position, it appears as though Kill will be relying on sophomore Phillip Nelson to pick up as the team's starting quarterback after a so-so freshman-year showing, and will once again lean heavily on last year's leading rusher, junior running back Donnell Kirkwood, to improve a unit that ranked 10th in the conference in total offense a year ago.
On the defensive side of the ball, things were a bit better in 2012, as the Golden Gophers ranked 5th in the conference in total defense. The hope of an improvement here rides heavily on the shoulders of a couple of key seniors in DT Ra'Shede Hageman and OLB Aaron Hill - both of whom are key prospects to keep an eye on leading up to the 2014 NFL draft.
Minnesota has not produced an NFL Draft pick since the 2010 season, when WR Eric Decker (third round) and LB Nathan Triplett (fifth round) were selected.
NFL Draft picks the last five years: Two
2013 NFL Draft picks: None
Top Minnesota Prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft:
1. Ra'Shede Hageman (6-5, 310, 4.92)
Originally recruited as a tight end, Hageman's combination of size and athleticism prompted a move to defensive line where he made a notable impact as a first-year starter last season, tallying 35 tackles and six sacks from the interior as a junior. He enters his senior year as a watch list member for several prestigious awards, and with expectation from many to emerge as one of the top NFL prospects at his position coming out in 2014.
At 6-5 and 310 pounds, Hageman possesses superb length, a lean, athletic build, and good proportion. He exhibits rare explosion off the snap, and has a knack for finding gaps early in the play, using his flexibility, balance and active hands to knife tight spaces and fire into the backfield. While he struggles to stay low at times at the point of attack, his "plus" foot quickness and good use of arm legth enable him to keep blockers out of his chest and he puts surprising upper body strength on display to toss bigger, more stout O-linemen to the side, when considering his lean build.
He needs to work on staying low as a run defender as he has a tendency to keep his legs extended and lead with his chest or shoulder, resulting in him being stood up and pushed off the line and out of the play.
In terms of awareness, he needs to improve on keeping his eyes on the backfield rather than dropping his head, as he'll often gain penetration but will end up out of contention to make a play due to losing a sense of what is going on around him.
If Hageman can improve his all-around game by cleaning up some of these technical issues, he has a really good chance of being a first-round selection and one of the first D-linemen off the board next May, considering the premium that NFL teams are willing to pay for a player with natural ability to disrupt the pocket from the inside. His combination of size and explosiveness also gives him the versatility to play end at the next level, and could give him a leg-up over some of the more traditional interior linemen in the class.
Other Minnesota prospects to watch:
RB Donnell Kirkwood (5-10, 223, 4.58)*
Thick, powerful, between-the-tackles runner who led the team in rushing as a sophomore with 926 yards and six rushing touchdowns on 218 carries. Possesses some natural explosiveness and good vision, and could draw attention from NFL teams looking for a one-cut, zone-scheme runner to add to their backfield.
OLB Aaron Hill Minnesota (6-2, 231, 4.76)
Solid contributor as a junior posting 74 tackles, four TFLs, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and a sack, in 11 starts. Was also named Academic All-Big Ten. Athletic, physical 'backer who has a chance to be a potential sleeper and mid-to-late round prospect if he can stay healthy and continue to improve fundamentally.
OT Ed Olson (6-6, 310, 5.37)
A 24-game starter at left tackle, Olson was limited last year due to injury. Big, strong lineman with ideal length, who plays with a nasty streak, exhibiting power on contact and good technique. Considering range limitations, may be a better fit at guard at the next level. Will have a chance to put a full season together and earn interest from NFL scouts as a senior.
SS Brock Vereen (5-11, 202, 4.57)
Senior safety who started only one of the first seven games for the Golden Gophers in 2012, then came on late to start the final six at strong safety. Racked up 64 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups on the year, and emerged as a leader in one of the conferences best secondaries. Consistent, intelligent safety who diagnoses and displays good awareness in space. Not an elite athlete, but understands the game, and has a chance to establish himself as an NFL prospect considering his versatility (has played corner and both safety positions), and high football IQ.
The full list of the players and teams previewed by NFLDraftScout.com can be seen here.