They keep coming back to that one word: structure. Those who best know Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman say it's the thing he needs most to reach his prodigious potential.
Which is hard to believe when you look at him.
Few Big Ten football players have bodies more structurally sound than Hageman's. Most defensive tackles are boxy in build; Hageman is long and lean at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds. Muscles bulge from his No. 99 jersey, seemingly the only Gophers garment that can contain his freakish frame.
He runs a 4.9 in the 40 and has a vertical leap between 36-40 inches. He led his high school basketball team to a state title and showed off his blocking skills last week at Northwestern, knocking down three third-down passes to stifle drives (he also had an interception). At 7, Hageman did backflips on demand, making his adoptive father wonder what a kid who had never participated in organized athletics could do on a ball field.
"Talent's no issue," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill told ESPN.com this summer. "He can 360 dunk. Athleticism's not an issue. It's just having structure and buying into structure, the growing up part of it.
"Catching the mind up with the body, so to speak."
Hageman has had to catch up because he began so far behind. That he's even in the race is a testament to him and to the many around him who provided the structure he needed along the way.
Born Ra'Shede Knox, he and his younger brother, Xavier, spent much of their early years living in foster homes or with their mother, who battled drug and alcohol abuse. Ra'Shede never knew his father.
The brothers bounced between a dozen foster homes before being adopted by Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle, two attorneys living in Minneapolis. While in law school, Coyle had worked for an organization that dealt with hard-to-place adoption candidates, and she and Eric decided to adopt before having their own kids.
"We were young and idealistic," Eric Hageman recalled. "We adopted Ra’Shede and Xavier when they were 7 and 6 years old. We were ready to meet that kind of challenge. At least we thought we were."
They provided the foundation that Ra'Shede needed. Eric, noticing Ra'Shede's size and athletic ability, immediately introduced sports -- football, basketball, baseball, even golf -- where he quickly blossomed.
Ra'Shede calls Eric and Jill his "No. 1 supporters since Day 1," but his transition to living with them didn't come without challenges.
"You had the normal issues all parents deal with, and then you layer on top of that the adoption issue, and also the racial identity issue," Eric Hageman said. "It was not always easy for Ra'Shede in particular to be a young, black kid with white lawyers for parents. I remember many times when he was younger where we'd be walking somewhere and he'd walk ahead or behind us, just to show he was not identified with us or something."
Like any teenager, Ra'Shede rebelled. As Eric puts it, "He sought out a rougher crowd to establish his bona fides." When Giovan Jenkins first met Ra'Shede, he saw an incredibly gifted eighth grader who could play varsity football or basketball as soon as he set foot at Washburn High School.
But he also saw a boy in a man's body, struggling to find himself.
"He was still dealing with the neighborhood pressures, the fact he looked different than his parents and things like that," said Jenkins, the football coach at Washburn. "So we caught him at a very volatile period of maturity and growth."
An admitted "knucklehead" in high school, Ra'Shede enjoyed chasing girls, hanging out with the boys and playing sports. Classes didn't fit into his itinerary.
He needed someone to provide structure.
"Coach G just took me under his wing and made me understand I have opportunities that are different from other people," Ra’Shede said.
As a tight end for Washburn, Hageman had 12 touchdown catches as a junior and 11 as a senior. The scholarship offers flowed in from schools like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida, Nebraska and Wisconsin, but Hageman opted to stay home and play at Minnesota.
After redshirting in 2009, Hageman reached another crossroads the following season. Minnesota had fired coach Tim Brewster in mid-October. In early November, interim coach Jeff Horton suspended Hageman for the rest of the season for academic reasons. Hageman was hardly alone. When Kill arrived as coach in December, he inherited more than 25 players on academic probation.
"I was a procrastinator," Hageman said. "It wasn’t that I didn’t like school. At that time, it wasn’t exciting. I was just lazy. I used to hate going to study hall because it took away from my nap time."
Kill provided a wake-up call for Hageman the day before a final exam. After Hageman didn't show up for a study session, Kill frantically called Eric Hageman and stayed on the line as he marched across campus to Ra'Shede's dorm room.
He banged on the door, only to find Ra'Shede asleep.
"He basically dragged him back to the football office and had one of the coaches do flash cards with him for four or five hours to get him ready," Eric Hageman said.
Added Ra'Shede: "Coach Kill was like, 'Obviously, you’re a better person than you are right now. Focus on your school and football, rather than focusing on the college party life and all that. You only get one shot at this.' He was real blunt that day. Ever since then, I’ve had my head on straight.”
Hageman left the "old Ra'Shede" behind. He's now in good academic standing, taking his final class for a degree in youth studies. His education continues on the field, too, as he goes through his fourth season at defensive tackle after switching from offense.
His production spiked from his sophomore to junior year, when he recorded six sacks and a forced fumble. The growth is continuing this fall, as Hageman already has 6.5 tackles for loss, two blocked kicks, an interception and six pass breakups.
"It's still a new position," said Hageman, who bypassed the draft after last season to complete his degree and improve at his position. "Jadeveon Clowney and other defensive players, they've been playing their whole life. I'm still learning so many new things about the position every day.
"My better days are still ahead of me."
Hageman wants to be a combination of Ndamukong Suh and J.J. Watt, which is fitting as one plays 4-3 tackle and the other 3-4 end, two positions Hageman could play at the next level. Minnesota acting head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks the NFL will benefit Hageman, who will face fewer exotic blocking schemes (mostly zone), taller offensive lineman (right now, his pad level is often too high against smaller players) and fewer double teams, at least initially.
"At the next level, he'll continue to get even better," Claeys said. "There's no guarantees, but once he gets to the combine, they'll see how good he is. He's just an extremely powerful kid, and he continues to mature. The structure part of it, whoever he plays for, if they put a pretty decent structure in place, Ra'Shede will continue to grow and be fine."
Kill likens Hageman to Brandon Jacobs, his former player at Southern Illinois who left school with rawness and promise. The New York Giants provided the structure Jacobs needed, and he played a key role on two Super Bowl-winning teams.
So many have provided structure for Hageman, from his parents to Jenkins to Kill to his academic advisor, Jacki Lienesch, to his older brother, Lazal. Now he's ready to stand on his own two massive feet.
"It doesn't matter where you start out," Eric Hageman said. "It's where you end up."
At times, Hageman reflects on his unique path. This summer, he shared his story with kids around Minneapolis.
Jenkins, who often has Hageman talk to his players, calls Hageman "an example for everybody, everywhere."
"Not everybody comes from a silver spoon," Hageman said. "If you really want something, you have to work hard for it, no matter what type of person you are. I'm definitely a product of that. Having my trials of me being adopted and me being in different situations, I just stayed focused on my prize and kept working toward it."
He'll continue working. But he's already won.