September 17, 2008

Hagg learning on the fly at nickel back

Ask Eric Hagg about his performance through the first three weeks of the season, and he'll give you an answer so modest it sounds like he's hardly even played.

Ask his coaches and teammates, though, and you'll get an entirely different and likely more honest perspective.

Go ahead, ask him.

"I think I'm doing OK," Hagg said. "I think I could do better. A lot better. I don't think you guys can tell, though. But when you watch film you can tell."

Now ask Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini.

"Eric Hagg played an outstanding football game (last week)," Pelini said. "He had a lot on his plate. He's played these teams that are spread out, and I thought he did a lot of good things. He continues to get better every week. He's a relatively young, inexperienced guy that gets better every time he walks on the football field. I'm real happy with his development up to this point."

In his first three games as a regular contributor on Nebraska's defense, the sophomore defensive back from Peoria, Ariz., has been thrown into the fire so to speak. He didn't even know he was going to play much at all this season until the final week of fall camp, and now he's become a regular in the Huskers' secondary.

Last week against New Mexico State, Hagg recorded a team-high 10 tackles, including nine unassisted, and he's currently tied for second on the team with 17 total tackles. Oh yeah, he also leads the team with four pass breakups and has already recovered and forced a fumble.

Part of Hagg's sudden thrust into the defensive rotation initially came strictly out of necessity, as he took over the No. 1 nickel back spot during the last week of fall camp when sophomore cornerback Anthony West was out with an injury.

It also had a lot to with the Huskers schedule, which kicked off with three straight pass-oriented offenses that constantly required a fifth defensive back in Western Michigan, San Jose State and New Mexico State.

But with his performance through the first three weeks, Hagg has flourished in the nickel position and has established himself as one of the Huskers better all-around defensive backs. With his combination of size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds), good speed and noticeably long arms, Hagg provides the Huskers with the ideal body fit for a nickel back.

"He's getting better and better every week," senior cornerback Armando Murillo said. "He's got an arm span that's taller than me. His arms are so long, you get a good jam on people. They're not going to run away from you that easy when your arms are 8-feet wide."

Hagg said the biggest weakness in his game is his speed. Murillo's assessment seems to differ a bit.

"He's got good enough speed," Murillo said. "It's just a mind thing. I mean, you haven't seen anybody run past him. He's got the speed. I know he's got the speed."

Pelini has also noticed the advantages Hagg's frame provides him in coverage.

"Having length helps you, and having size helps you," Pelini said. "He reminds of guys that I've coached in the past. He is athletic. He's got that length to him and size that enables him to get his hands on people and use his length to offset some things people want to do."

Pelini said Hagg could play an even bigger role as the season progresses in helping the Huskers match-up with the bigger, stronger receivers they'll face during their Big 12 Conference schedule.

"Nowadays you have big receivers out there," he said. "They weren't that big the other day, but we're going to see some relatively large receivers. So it helps to have guys with that kind of size help offset some of the strengths those receivers have."

Like most young players, Hagg's biggest struggle has been not dwelling on bad plays and moving on to the next play. That's why Murillo said he has taken it upon himself to make sure Hagg doesn't get too down during games or in practice.

"I just make sure that he always got his head up, that he's never down," Murillo said. "If he gets beat or something, I just tell him to stay up and stay focused. Just go on to the next play. The dude's young. It's his first year playing. I just make sure he's got his head up all the time, because things are going to happen. Just go on to the next play."

Playing what he considers one of the most difficult positions on the field, Hagg has made a name for himself as the Huskers nickel back. Though he had no idea if he'd even see the field this season until the final week of fall camp, Hagg too on the role as the No. 1 nickel and has held onto it ever since.

He'll certainly have his ups and downs as the season progresses, but as could be expected, Hagg said he'd rather learn through his mistakes on the field than from watching from the sideline.

"Sometimes I'm in a different defense than everybody else, so that's a problem sometimes," Hagg said. "But I'd rather be playing right now. I'd definitely rather be playing right now."

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