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Flames Feature: A Coach on the Field for the Flames
Editorial Note: This story served as the Flames Illustrated football game day program senior feature story for Liberty's home game against Brevard on Sept. 13. Jacob Hagen continues to excel following his 2013 season where he was named an AP third-team All-American. He leads the team with 58 tackles (34 solo, 24 assisted) and has recorded three forced fumbles, six pass breakups and a fumble return for a touchdown at North Carolina. The senior has three interceptions on the year, giving him 10 for his career which ranks fifth best in program history.
Jacob Hagen is a man among boys in the Flames backfield this season.
Physically, of course, the 6-3, 205-pound safety stands out as a sizeable backfield threat for Liberty's opponents. Hagen used his size to its full advantage during the 2013 season, recording a career-high 61 tackles (34 solo, 27 assisted). His six interceptions on the year, led the Big South and ranking third nationally in the statistical category.
"There's definitely going to be some teams — we saw it last year — that did not really want to throw it to his side of the field," defensive coordinator Robert Wimberley said, noting that Hagen actually crossed field for the bulk of his late-season picks. "If my two young guys, Gary Simpson and [Alpha] Jalloh keep coming along, they won't have an option. Until then, they definitely will try to stay away from him."
In the Flames first two games of the 2014 season alone, Hagen has accumulated 13 tackles (nine solo, four assisted). His 22-yard interception set the Flames up to take a commanding lead in last week's game against Norfolk State, helping Liberty to the 17-0 shutout victory.
During the season opener, he had a 27-yard fumble return for a touchdown against No. 23 North Carolina and recorded one of three interceptions against the nationally ranked FBS program. Dating back to last season, Hagen has recorded an interception in six straight games.
His athleticism sets him apart, no doubt. But in the most literal sense of the phrase, Hagen has become something of a father figure on the field. As one of the rare upperclassmen in the Flames backfield this season, Hagen is tasked with bringing up a new generation of Liberty defensive backs.
"For me personally, I just try to lead by example," explained Hagen. "That's my big thing. I'm not the biggest talker out there — everybody knows that — but I just try to lead by example."
Many claim to do the same, but Hagen backs it up. Players and coaches alike speak of his intensity when it comes to the game of football; a single-minded focus that challenges those around him.
"My strength is the passion I play with," Hagen said. "I go out there and try to play every down like it's my last down."
His fervor does not go unnoticed.
"I never have to talk to Jacob about going harder," Wimberley declared. "I've never seen him just go through the motions. I don't care if it's on defense, or if it's a walk-through; he's in tune. He's here to practice; he's here to get it done and he'll laugh after the job's done."
Hagen credits his dedication and confidence on the field in part to the upperclassmen who raised him — standout defensive backs Walt Aikens and Kevin Fogg chief among them.
Aikens and Fogg are two of the rising number of Liberty players making an impact at the professional level. Aikens was a fourth round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins, while Fogg joined his former teammate with the same NFL franchise as a free agent during training camp in August.
Hagen has remained close to both Aikens and Fogg. Their work ethic and experience has been a valuable influence for Hagen as he finds himself filling the leadership roles they vacated.
"We knew it was going to be young on the back end [this season]," Wimberley said, "I think that's where it becomes pivotal that you have a guy like Hagen who the young men can look up to. It always starts with having respect for the other guys on the field."
Wimberley added that he often hands initiatives for the team — getting the group to watch more film, for example, or running extra drills after practice — off to Hagen to implement within the defensive backs unit.
"If the young men didn't respect Hagen, we would probably be in a lot more trouble trying to develop them," Wimberley noted, "but he's an extension of us as a coach. We didn't have to do a lot. When they didn't want to go hard, [Hagen] made sure they went hard. He's kind of been that guy who, when they don't want to listen to me or [defensive backs] Coach [Marshall] Roberts, they're going to listen to Jacob Hagen. Having him out there has been very pivotal to our success."
His teammates voiced their agreement by voting Hagen a team captain in the preseason; a position he called "an honor" to hold and takes — not surprisingly — quite seriously.
"I try to get better with my whole game, every day, from tackling to going up and getting the ball in the air," Hagen said. "I just try to rub off on the young guys with my work ethic. Coming to work every day, in every aspect — in the weight room, in the film room, on the field. That is what you can control."
Given the concentration with which he approaches football, there's no doubt Hagen will continue to grow as an individual player; but even more encouraging is the knowledge that he will elevate the entire backfield along the way.
"Having him around and having him do what he does definitely makes the load for me easier when it comes to coaching the young men. Sometimes when Coach [Gill] says to do something, it's, ‘Oh, he's the coach'," Wimberley explained, waving his hand dismissively. "But when you have a young man who's been through the fire, who is out there on the football field with them saying it, then it rings in their ears. That's the value that you have with a young man like Jacob Hagen."
Combining the high standards of those Liberty defensive backs who preceded him and an inspiring drive all his own, Hagen anchors the Flames young backfield this season. But, don't be surprised if the Flames secondary overachieves — with his example to follow, they will grow up fast.
By Ryley Rush, a freelance writer for Liberty Athletics