Hager motivated by ‘love’ entering senior season, PT. I

Breckyn Hager (Will Gallagher/IT)

Breckyn Hager (Will Gallagher/IT)

Senior defensive lineman Breckyn Hager struggled several times to answer questions during his more than 60 minute breakout session at Big 12 Media Days. He is a player known to speak his mind, but in that same mind he also knows what he says has consequences. Past reminders of mentions of Patrick Mahomes and West Virginia moonshine likely remain ingrained in his memory and pop up whenever he has to sit in front of the media.

So when he wanted to speak his mind, knowing it likely would have forced him to issue another apology he didn’t really want to issue, he didn’t. When he got question after question about his long hair, something he hates and can’t wait to get rid of, he took it in stride and answered every question about the blonde locks. Any awkward pause wasn’t out of malice toward the reporters there from local outlets and national news services. For him, it was about love, something he repeated several times.

Love to Hager was what allowed for Texas head coach Tom Herman to bring him to media days. It was what has allowed him to play football for a university he loved. He didn’t want to betray the love that had gotten him to that seat at the Ford Center in Frisco.

Entering his fourth and final season at Texas, Hager’s love in his family for the game of football, love for the University of Texas, love for Tom Herman, and love for his current role in the Longhorn defense have him more motivated than he’s ever been to win the Big 12 Championship and cut the hair that’s been growing out of his head for almost four years.

LOVE OF FOOTBALL

Hager’s role on the field has fluctuated during his time as a Longhorn, but his love of the game has only increased. That makes sense for the son of one of Texas’ best linebackers ever.

Although they don’t share positions, the thought of the last son of Britt Hager, Texas career tackles leader, playing in burnt orange had a lot of fans excited. Britt’s three other sons played their collegiate football outside of Austin, so a nostalgic swell of pride hit many fans when Breckyn decided to flip from Baylor to Texas after a scholarship offer from previous Texas head coach Charlie Strong.

Breckyn Hager (via the Hager family)

Breckyn Hager (via the Hager family)

Breckyn had all three brothers sign to play football at the college level, most notably Bryce Hager who won two Big 12 championships at Baylor and was selected in the final round of the 2015 draft. Despite his current 255 pound frame, Breckyn wasn’t always one of college football’s most freakish athletes as NFL.com labeled him earlier in the summer.

“It was a lot of wrasslin’, but I wasn’t doing any of the wrasslin’,” Hager said about his time growing up. “I was the one being wrassled.”

Hager admitted that Pop Warner was the hardest football he ever played in his life, and a lot of that was based on who his dad was. Britt was twice an all-SWC linebacker and earned All-American honors in his record breaking senior year in 1988, all while continuing the excellent legacy of the No. 60 at Texas.

His father was one of the first of many teachers of the game he’s had throughout his career, but without what his dad taught him as his Pop Warner coach he wouldn’t be where he is now.

“He instilled in me some of the things in me that are irreplaceable in this game like if you’re not going to hit someone hard, you’re going to feel the pain,” Hager said. “If you’re the one taking it, you’re going to be the one feeling the pain.”

This likely provides some explanation as to why Hager said his goal was “to hurt the quarterback” prior to the Texas Tech game in 2016. It wasn’t because he had a feud of any sorts with Mahomes, who exchanged messages of respect with Hager on social media prior to the Texas victory in Lubbock. It was because he knew that in order to win he had to be the one delivering hits rather than taking them.

In addition to what his father taught him, he also learned from his brothers.

Britt’s two youngest sons, Bryce and Breckyn, have easily had the most success of the four brothers in their college careers. Bryce still remains on the Los Angeles Rams’ roster, while Hager could find himself on a NFL roster in a year if his play continues to improve.

Both Bryce and Breckyn were not highly rated blue-chip prospects coming out of Austin Westlake. Bryce wasn’t rated as one of the top 2000 players in the country, while Breckyn’s rating barely crossed the three-star threshold.

Bryce had to show a lot on the field to go from two-star to NFL draft prospect. It was something Breckyn looked to often as he transitioned from high school to college.

Breckyn Hager (Will Gallagher/IT)

Breckyn Hager (Will Gallagher/IT)

“I learned everything from what he wished he could have done to whatever, a lot,” Hager said. “All of my brothers have taught me something in unique ways in terms of football and life. Bryce is always looking out for my career and helping me with things I can’t really ask of anyone else.”

Though Breckyn quite easily boasts the longest hair of all the Hagers, he shares the similar disposition of all the Hagers dating back to when Britt was a standout at Odessa Permian.

Hager noted that football players are modern day gladiators, but acquiesced that “we’re not out here killing nobody.”

Still, as a football player, he has to “go.” What makes him go has evolved over time as he’s matured, but his motivation while between the lines does harken back to that gladiatorial instinct.

“I genuinely feel like there is no tomorrow when it’s game day,” Hager said. “When you have that feeling, you’re excited, you know you’ve done everything, you have the best coaching possible, and you’re 100 percent prepared? You’re excited. Mix excitement with no tomorrow? That’s what fuels my ego on the field.”

LOVE OF TEXAS

Ever since Hager became convicted in Herman’s culture rather than compliant, it’s allowed for him to show the love of Texas that many fans share.

Growing up, Texas was always his favorite school, the Longhorns his favorite team, and those who trotted out on Darrell K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium his favorite to don burnt orange.

One of his teammates at Texas and previously a teammate at Westlake, sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger, also shares that love. While his family doesn’t share the same football playing pedigree, the upbringing of the two are strikingly similar.

Texas has allowed for Hager and Ehlinger to continue to foster their relationship. They practice and play games together, but they’re also able to spend time together like they were 40 minutes west of campus. Hager mentioned that every Tuesday and Thursday, he and Ehlinger order pizza rolls and play video games.

“Football didn’t introduce us,” Hager said, and while that’s true for the duo from Westlake, it’s not the same for everyone else on the team.

For example, his fellow defensive end Charles Omenihu shares a goal: “We’re both trying to collect the souls of quarterbacks, and we’re racing to it.”

He mentioned senior cornerback Kris Boyd (a.k.a. “Deuce Gang”) as another physical freak, along with Omenihu, seniors Davante Davis, Chris Nelson, and junior Malcolm Roach.

He repeatedly spoke about his love for Texas, and that love that is shared among all his teammates. He also mentioned it wasn’t always like that for him while a player.

Through the first few games of the 2017 season, Hager mostly played on special teams and on third-and-long passing situations. His pass rush ability was unquestioned, but other portions of his game had limitations.

There was also a disconnect between Herman and Hager. They weren’t at odds with each other, but they weren’t the duo that would sacrifice for each other like they would now.

The story of Hager apologizing to Herman following an important third down tackle in his breakout game against Oklahoma State has made the national media rounds, but that moment only helped to solidify Hager’s love of Texas.

“I think he realized that he was the one that needed to get on board, and he did,” Herman said. “He’s been championing our way of doing things ever since. Here we are nine months later and he’s representing us at the Big 12 Media Days.”

The breakthrough in their relationship was big, but also was his breakthrough on the field. Hager started all but one of the remaining games following the loss to OSU at defensive end. He had 18 tackles in the last seven games and ended up second on the team in TFLs and tied for first in sacks.

Just like the coaches had been evaluating the players, Hager had been evaluating the coaches. It was part of what he always had done with coaches. Once he reached a certain point in his evaluation, he saw something that needed to change.

“It wasn’t (butting) heads, it was me legitimately being in the wrong and being stubborn,” Hager admitted. “Just not mature.”

Following that apology, Hager’s season took off. He found a role in the defense and became a mainstay on the defensive line.

Hager played well all the way into the Texas Bowl, where an unfortunate circumstance gave him an opportunity few University of Texas defenders have been given.

Breckyn Hager (Will Gallagher/IT)

Breckyn Hager (Will Gallagher/IT)

Following the death of Longhorn great Tommy Nobis on December 13th, Hager was chosen to be the player who would wear the No. 60 for the Texas Bowl. His dad had worn the number, giving it great meaning to him.

But for someone who loves Texas as much as Hager, it meant a lot more. In that iconic burnt orange 60, Hager was part of a defense that forced four turnovers and held Missouri to its lowest total yardage output in seven games.

“It was truly, truly a blessing,” Hager said. “I still can’t believe I wore the No. 60 at the University of Texas. When I remind myself of that, that’s just another little thing that drives me to give everything I’ve got for this university. If you’re going to be given a lot, you’ve got to give back.”

Hager’s love of Texas had trying times, and it almost interfered with his love of football. Program defining losses in a negative sense happened while he was on the field.

But now that’s he’s able to thrive in an environment that supports players who genuinely love Texas the way he does, he can express that love in ways that support the efforts of the team.

“It carries over to going 1-0 and competing in everything we do on a day-to-day basis,” Hager said. “It could be our workout tomorrow. I’ve got split squats and a bunch of other things I’ve got to go 1-0 in. I wouldn’t be going 1-0 if I were just doing it by myself. I’ve got to drag along (Derek) Kerstetter, but I don’t have to drag him along anymore. That’s where it gets fun.”