Note: This story appears in the Sunday, Aug. 25 newspaper on Page B1.
Eighth months ago, Javon Hagan had a decision to make.
Did he finish out his collegiate eligibility, wrap up his undergraduate degree from Ohio University and take one last run at the Mid-American Conference with the Bobcats? Or did he turn the page, and dive head-first into pursuing a professional football career?
Hagan, a 22-year old from Jacksonville, decided he wanted another year in Athens. He hasn’t looked back since.
“I’m not sweating that decision at all,” Hagan said in July. “I’m happy I came back, if we win it all or not.
“I came back to be with the program for another year. Winning (the MAC title) would put a cherry on top for sure,” he continued. “I’m just trying to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make that happen.”
Hagan, a 6-foot, 215-pound safety with a nose for the ball, has already stitched together one of the better careers for a defensive player in Ohio history. He’s already been a two-time All-MAC First Team selection, on top of a Second Team selection in 2017. He’s a three-time team captain.
Hagan has appeared in 39 games and made 35 starts for the Bobcats. He’s amassed 216 career tackles, no small feat for a safety, and ranks in Ohio’s all-time top 10 in both passes defended (25) and passes broken up (19). He’s been a havoc magnet on the field with six interceptions, eight forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Hagan was second on the roster with 78 total tackles in 2018, and added 6 passes defended on his way to First Team All-MAC honors. He’ll begin the 2019 season on the watch list for both the Bronko Nagurski and Jim Thorpe Awards — to of the most prestigious honors for defensive players in all of college football.
It’s a resume few players in Ohio history could match. And there’s a strong belief that Hagan’s final chapter will be his best one yet.
“Sure, there’s a lot of ways Javon can get better,” explained Ohio defensive coordinator Ron Collins. “Mostly, it’s to do with being more consistent.
“But athletically, experience, his knowledge of the game, he has all of that. He’s what you’re looking for back there.”
Hagan will start the season as the best defensive player on the Ohio roster, and perhaps the best defensive player in the Mid-American Conference. And he’ll also start 2019 miles ahead from where he was a year ago.
Hagan missed virtually all of the 2018 fall camp with a concussion, suffered thanks to a hard hit when he made a diving attempt for errant ball. The gap, some three weeks or more, left him out of sorts, disconnected a bit from the rest of the secondary, and playing catch-up throughout the season.
Hagan still had a good year. He rounded into form. And Ohio’s defense as a whole followed.
But there was no such issue in August this time around. Hagan didn’t miss a practice during camp. He wasn’t allowed to participate in either of Ohio’s fall camp scrimmages, but that was merely precautionary.
Hagan begins 2019 in better shape, with better timing and a far more comfortable grasp on the state of the entire secondary.
“I felt like I was focused more on my technique things. I was making sure I was more conditioned. Stayed on top of my weight,” Hagan explained Friday after the Bobcats’ final fall camp practice.
“And I tried to be more of a mentor to the younger guys,” he continued. “When you’re hurt, you can get a bit sidetracked. But I was a bigger part of all of that in this camp.
“We want guys to take the initiative, to learn, to understand the playbook and the system. This year was definitely better for me.”
Hagan spent camp working on techniques and communicating more with his fellow starters in the secondary — safety Jarren Hampton and corners Jamal Hudson and Marlin Brooks. He knows he’s viewed as the ringleader there, but said it’s a group project now.
“We’re all leaders back there in our own way. Instead of me being the older guy telling them what to do all the time, we’re helping each other,” Hagan said.
“They’re telling me stuff. When you’re playing DB, you got your secondary. And you got to trust those guys out there with you. We have that.”
Hagan has always been a kind of a ‘big picture’ thinker. He models his game after Jamal Adams, the former LSU standout and former No. 6 overall pick with the New York Jets. A big reason why is the way Adams prepares and takes into account things other just making big plays.
“I love the way he watches film. He pays attention to the o-line to show him if it’s a pass or a run. He does a great job being vocal, showing toughness, competitiveness and showing no fear,” Hagan said.
Hagan is a big proponent of healthy eating habits, and speaks like a proud father when he notes how much a player like Brooks has changed in that regard. Hagan, himself, is a vegetarian, most of the week.
“Monday through Friday only,” Hagan said. “I need meat to hit though.”
And his decision to finish his eligibility at Ohio was rooted in a long-term vision as well. He could’ve pushed for entry into the NFL Draft. But he’s seen too many players do the same, and not have it work out well.
Hagan said he owed it to his family, and to himself, to finish his time at Ohio. Whatever pro career he has will still be there after 2019.
But it does leave Hagan staring a more narrow point now, a finish line of sorts. This is his last collegiate season. Winning a MAC title won’t justify his decision to stay necessarily, but it sure would make it sweeter.
“It’s a blessing to be a part of this program. This program has come a long way. To finish off with a MAC championship…it would mean something to me, the program and definitely to Coach Solich,” Hagan said.
“Stay tuned. I think this season is going to be a great one.”