Sunday, November 2, 2008

Confident Hagan's career at Cal soars to new heights

I wrote story about cornerback Darian Hagan that appeared in Cal's football program Saturday when the Bears beat Oregon. In case you missed the game or missed the story, here it is:


To truly understand how high Cal cornerback Darian Hagan’s football career has soared this season, you have to recall the day it hit rock bottom.

It was Sept. 8, 2007. The Bears had built what appeared to be an insurmountable 34-14 lead over Colorado State, and Hagan, along with some other young Bears, came off the bench late in the fourth quarter at Fort Collins.

Before Hagan knew what hit him, Colorado State had burned him twice, once on a 66-yard touchdown pass.

“That was a terrible experience,” said Hagan, a red-shirt sophomore. “I was kind of thinking, ‘OK, the light’s finally coming on.’ I get my opportunity, and I got out there and blew it.”

Hagan was yanked from that game, which Cal hung on to win 34-28. He never played another down at cornerback in the Bears’ final 11 games that season.

After being humiliated at Colorado State and spending the rest of his red-shirt freshman season on the bench, the light that Hagan mentioned actually did come on.

Hagan said he finally realized that the “practice habits” that served him well enough as a highly recruited cornerback at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, didn’t cut it at Cal.

“Coming from high school, I was one of the stars on the team,” Hagan said. “I was forced to practice, but it was kind of like a you-can-do-whatever-you-want-to-do kind of thing. I came to college with that attitude, and it wasn’t getting me anywhere.

“It took a little while to wake up. At this point, it’s not really a game anymore. This is a business. I had to get that through my head. I finally got it through my head.”

When he did, Hagan made one of the smartest decisions of his Cal career. He called linebacker Worrell Williams, a respected and forceful team leader, and asked for help. Specifically, Hagan asked Williams to push him to work hard and make sure he never slipped back into his bad habits.

“I think that was a sign of maturity for him to reach out,” Williams said. “He’s evolved as a player. He’s gotten smart out there. His tackling has gotten a lot better. He’s a lot tougher. He’s always been a good (cover) corner out there, a great corner. He’s doing well.”

When it comes to keeping Hagan on track, Williams takes his job seriously. He calls him often to make sure he’s lifting weights and doing his work off the field. At practice, he lets Hagan know he’s watching him.

“Whenever he sees me slacking, he’ll say, ‘Step it up, step it up,’ ” Hagan said. “He always reminds me of that (telephone) call.”

Hagan used the Colorado State game as motivation during spring practice, summer workouts and training camp, when he won the starting job at right cornerback.

Another motivating force arrived in his life on Feb. 21st when his daughter, Kenyan, was born. She and her mother live in Los Angeles, but they were in Berkeley visiting Hagan for a few weeks earlier this season.

Being a father, Hagan said, has changed his life.

“So that’s been an extra push for me to come out and make things happen and try to live my dream here,” Hagan said.

“I keep a picture of her on my locker, a big picture of her. So every day I come in before I hit the field and see that. It kind of wakes me up and gets me ready for practice. Got to make it happen now.”

Hagan didn’t have to wait long to get redemption against Colorado State. The Bears and Rams met again on Sept. 27, this time at Memorial Stadium. Hagan had his first career interception and made four tackles, including one in the backfield.

“He’s made great strides,” Cal linebacker Anthony Felder said. “He’s increased his work ethic, his focus. Every week he gets better.”

And every week he has a target on his jersey, playing opposite third-year starting left cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson, the Bears most decorated defensive back.

Hagan said he understands why most quarterbacks avoid Thompson and attack him. But you know what? He loves the extra attention. In Hagan’s mind, more passes thrown his way equal more chances to make big plays and prove his worth.

“That’s kind of a plus for me for him to be a lock-down corner on his side,” Hagan said. “It will give me a few more opportunities to show that I can be the same type of players as well. I accept the challenge.”

There aren’t many, if any, challenges on the football field that Hagan doesn’t welcome.

He plays the game with a swagger and confidence that occasionally crosses the line into cockiness. Hagan said he has a split personality – one when he’s off the field and one when he plays football.

“I think I’m a real humble, laid-back guy off the field, but when I’m on the field I just turn into a totally different person,” Hagan said.

“I like to talk a little bit. It kind of motivates me. I like to try to get the (opposing) players into it a little bit, because when they start talking it just boosts me up to make sure I shut them down on the next play.”

Most of Hagan’s teammates aren’t nearly as talkative or expressive on the field. But Felder, for one, said he gets a kick out of Hagan’s game-day persona and said it helps motivate the team. He called Hagan’s attitude the “prototype” for most people who play corner, one of football’s most demanding and high-stress positions, where even the slightest mistake can cost your team a touchdown.

“You’ve got to have guys out there that are a little bit different from some of the other players on the field, higher energy, maybe a little bit more confidence and swagger than at other positions because you’re out on that island,” Felder said.

“It’s a lot like a boxer. He’s one-on-one with a receiver. … He’s real tough out there. At the same time, he’s able to be a team player and come up and help us out and also play within the system.”

Hagan said he pays close attention to a number of current NFL cornerbacks, including Green Bay’s Al Harris and San Diego’s Antonio Cromartie because they’re “tall, physical corners, kind of on the slimmer side, like me.”

But it should come as no surprise that Hagan’s favorite cornerback is one who has retired, ex-NFL great Deion Sanders, who went by that unassuming nickname of Prime Time.

“I just look at it like this,” Hagan said. “Deion Sanders, he kind of set the
standard for the cornerback position. And the type of player he was, he was real cocky out there. He’s having a lot of fun.

“It’s kind of like having to live up to that. That’s how I look at it. Playing this position, you have to have major confidence.”

Hagan has the confidence part of the cornerback job down pat. As for having fun, he’s got a good handle on that, too. This a player who loves to celebrate big plays on the field.

“He just kind of struts his stuff a little,” Williams said. “More body language than anything.”

“He’s not really a trash talker,” Cal safety Marcus Ezeff said of Hagan. “He’s more of a dancer. He likes to do his little dance. It’s kind of entertaining to watch.”

When Hagan made a big hit on an Arizona Wildcat receiver earlier this season, he had the wind knocked out of him and had to leave the field for a play. But not before he took care of some business.

“Even with the wind knocked out of me, I had to strike a pose,” Hagan said, laughing.

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