In senior defensive lineman Breckyn Hager’s first four games of the 2017 season, he totaled just three tackles and one sack. Most of his snaps came on special teams or on third down, where his deficiencies in moving backwards off the line of scrimmage could be hidden.
In that third game, Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando saw something on the opposite side of the field. Iowa State’s Drop-Eight defense stifled much of Texas’ offense. He saw something in that formation he could replicate at Texas.
As a result, he found a perfect role for Hager, but there was work to be done by the former Westlake defender to succeed in that role.
WEIGHT ROOM THUNDER
It probably served as a blessing for Hager that his defensive coordinator couldn’t find an expanded role for him until the fifth game. Before that, according to Texas head coach Tom Herman, he couldn’t last on the field at defensive end.
“The biggest thing was when we first got here he was not heavy enough to play against an offensive tackle,” Herman said at Big 12 Media Days. “He wasn’t strong enough. He could go three plays then he needed to take himself out of the game. His stamina was awful.”
Herman noted Hager had a strong first step, something Hager himself has been proud of since his days at Westlake. That first step helped him in passing downs, but his game was not refined enough for him to both stop the run and rush the pass.
Work with strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight throughout the first Herman offseason and throughout the course of the year helped Hager. Before McKnight showed up in Austin, Hager was listed at 227 pounds.
After his first offseason with the new strength staff, Hager was listed at 245 pounds. That size is perfect for a linebacker, but Hager was caught in the positional mix. He struggled with traditional linebacker duties, but wasn’t big enough to plow into the line each snap.
Another offseason with McKnight now has him listed at 255 pounds, though Herman said he could weigh more than that.
“Now that first step is accompanied with tremendous leg strength, tremendous upper body strength at I would say a 260 pound frame, and great stamina,” Herman said. “He couldn’t have survived until his body transformed the way that it did.”
After the offseason spent in the updated Al-Rashid Strength Complex, Hager was listed on lists like Bruce Feldman’s 2018 college football Freaks list alongside star players like Houston’s Ed Oliver, Michigan’s Rashan Gary, and Stanford’s Bryce Love.
“What it tells me about this team is that we’re a bunch of freaks and Yancy McKnight right now is conducting a freak show,” Hager said. “He’s ready to let us loose.”
Hager isn’t the only one who has made progress in the weight room. When asked who else made improvements, he listed several starters along the defense like Malcolm Roach and Charles Omenihu. When asked about the work ethic those in his unit had put in, Hager made his point clear.
“Understand that to be a freak, you’ve got to do a lot of things that a lot of people won’t do,” Hager said. “Let’s just say some people have sold their souls to collect some souls.”
Players often get asked who they model their game after. Some say they try to be themselves, some try to mold their game after multiple players. Hager had a name ready immediately when that question was asked.
“John Randle, the greatest pass rusher of all time,” he said.
Though said he said he could play all along the line of scrimmage and jokingly mentioned asking Herman if he could play running back, Hager knows the primary function of his role. “If I beat the guy off the ball, I’m going to win,” he said.
Until his breakout game on and off the field against Oklahoma State, he really didn’t have much of a role. That Oklahoma State game was where Orlando’s 3-2-6 lightning package was introduced in full to the Big 12. It limited a prolific Cowboy offense to just 10 regulation points.
That formation put Hager in the trenches at the 4i position for many conventional down and distance plays, but after his work with McKnight, he was no longer a liability but a strength.
“It allows an undersized defensive end in a three-down front to be successful because he’s always moving,” Herman said about the package. “You’re not asking him to go line up against a 320-pound offensive tackle and go two gap him, go mano y mano with him. You’re moving inside, you’re moving outside. You’re dropping off the ball. You’re doing a lot of things to use your strengths to your strength.”
“I think the movement part of the lightning package is the biggest thing that’s helped him,” Herman later added.
Though Herman knows how important that personnel package was to Texas’ seven wins last year, Hager was very up front about how important that package and the man who developed it was.
“I would just say it was the TO effect,” Hager said, referencing Orlando. “That was just his effect on the game of football. What he created, it’s special. That is such a dear package. It’s so dear to my heart for many reasons.”
Hager would later describe film sessions with Orlando as “a blessing from the football gods.” He mentioned that Orlando was the first college coach he had that taught his unit how to block when they forced a turnover.
In addition to Orlando, Hager made sure his position coach Oscar Giles received his due praise for developing his game.
“He was crucial in developing me as a 4i pass rusher,” Hager said. “Rushing out of the 4i can be the most predictable thing in the world. You just go outside and contain if it’s a pass. To play chess with them and set them up for something you want is learned through film and taught. Coach Giles is an incredible coach that helped me learn how to play 4i to the best of my ability.”
Under Orlando and Giles’ tutelage, Hager turned in his best season as a Longhorn. He started four of the last six games, recording 15 of his 22 total tackles during that span.
“It just took a leap of faith by them that I could beat a guy that’s 100 pounds heavier than me,” Hager said. “You’re not going to believe a guy can do that until he does it in the game.”
He had found a role and thrived in it. A lot was due to his effort and play, but a lot came from the man who believed he could fulfill that role in Orlando.
Now, Hager exudes confidence in his Longhorn defense heading into 2018, a defense that for much of last year he had only a supporting role in.
“It’s more so when you’ve got a group of guys who love each other and believe in what they’re doing, then you’ve got a defensive savant in Todd Orlando for real, someone that’s innovating the game of football, and he throws no hitters where he’s calling the perfect game, then everyone’s doing it for each other and everyone’s convicted in the culture, that’s when you win games,” Hager said. “That’s when you take over games. For now, we’re just walking softly and carrying a big stick.”