By Rusty Simmons
Sophomore Darian Hagan stands near midfield, dancing from his right cornerback spot and imploring the fans to get louder. Never mind that it's a midweek practice and the crowd noise is piped in through speakers. Hagan is all about swagger.
"Confidence is the biggest thing for Darian and probably any corner," senior inside linebacker Anthony Felder said. "They're out there on an island, and, regardless of their talent, if they're not confident, they're going to have problems. ... Every play and every game, he's getting more confidence in himself." Hagan, a 6-foot, 181-pounder, is proving to be a capable first-time starter with 12 tackles, including 10 solos, and a penchant for pass coverage. He's often targeted by opponents because he plays opposite shutdown corner Syd'Quan Thompson, and he expects it again Saturday from a Colorado State team that offers a deep-threat offense. "I can't wait," Hagan said. "They'll try to attack me, because of what happened last year, and that's what I hope for." With Cal leading 34-14 at Colorado State last season, Hagan was a late replacement. He got burned for two big passes, including a 66-yard touchdown play. He was pulled and didn't play any snaps at corner in the final 11 games. "I've got redemption on my mind," Hagan said.
"For a young guy at that position, that's a difficult thing to come back from, but he's starting to realize that he can play with these guys," Felder said. About once a week for the rest of last season, Hagan would miss an assignment in practice or feign hustle, and defensive coordinator Bob Gregory would shout, "That's why you can't get on the field, Darian." The consistent refrain from Gregory this season has been, "Darian is playing the best football he has since he's been here."
Senior inside linebacker Worrell Williams saw the light come on for Hagan over the summer. "He called me out of the blue and told me to stay on him," Williams said. "That was it. He had found that sense of urgency and the awareness to get on top of his stuff." That's not always an easy thing for someone who dominates in high school without ever knowing what it is to push himself. Hagan was an All-America selection at Crenshaw High-Los Angeles, ending his career with a state-record 25 interceptions and averaging 21 yards on 30 catches just for good measure. He redshirted in 2006, sitting behind Daymeion Hughes and Thompson. Last year, he was the odds-on favorite to win the job opposite of Thompson, but miniature Brandon Hampton and true freshman Chris Conte pushed past him.
"That was hard, but I know I was just hurting myself by not putting in the effort that I needed," Hagan said. "It was a learning experience and a situation I had to overcome." Lesson learned. Hagan asserted himself as a starter this training camp and hasn't disappointed, nearly intercepting a handful of passes and three recording pass break-ups in the opener against Michigan State. As a measuring stick, Hughes had 11 pass break-ups in 2006, the year he won the Ronnie Lott Trophy. Hagan undoubtedly will have chances to add to his statistics against Colorado State, which averages 261.3 passing yards a game and has a propensity to run deep patterns. First-year coach Steve Fairchild brings a little bit of the St. Louis Rams' deep-threat offense from his seasons (2003-05) as their offensive coordinator. In receivers Rashaun Greer and Dion Morton and tight end Kory Sperry, Fairchild has the talent to make it work. They offer the speed to run deep digs and comebacks and the hands to make plays when the ball is delivered down field. "They really stretch the defense very well," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "I think our secondary has done a pretty fair job, and I'm anxious to see how we match up with routes that are farther down the field." If Hagan is still waving to the crowd after Saturday, chances are he held up pretty well.