Former Baylor Bear Hager relishing ‘surreal’ Super Bowl experience
Los Angeles Rams linebacker Bryce Hager is savoring every moment of his Super Bowl LIII experience: the craziness of Monday’s media day, the intensity of every practice, and finally Sunday’s showdown against the New England Patriots at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Rams are one of the most exciting teams in the NFL with a great young offensive-minded coach in Sean McVay. This could be the first of many Super Bowls for the Rams, but it could be the last. Hager knows how rare and fleeting these chances are.
“It’s pretty surreal to get to this level on the biggest stage,” said Hager in a phone interview from Atlanta. “It’s really exciting and I’m trying to soak everything in and enjoy the moment.”
Hager will be the first former Baylor player to play in the Super Bowl since Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant two years ago. He will be Baylor’s first non-specialist since defensive back Willie Andrews played for the Patriots in a 17-14 loss to the New York Giants 11 years ago in Super Bowl XLII.
To magnify how special it is to play in the Super Bowl, Hager doesn’t have to look past his own family. His father, Britt Hager, played linebacker for nine NFL seasons from 1989-97 for Philadelphia, Denver and the St. Louis Rams, but never reached the Super Bowl.
But he’ll be in Atlanta to watch Bryce play.
“It’s pretty incredible having one of your sons playing in a Super Bowl,” Bryce said. “I’m sure he won’t sleep before he gets here.”
A seventh-round draft pick in 2015, Hager is a fourth-year backup linebacker for the Rams who has made his mark by leading their special teams in tackles since joining the team. While he hopes to break into the starting lineup in the future, Hager takes a lot of pride in doing whatever he’s asked from the Rams.
“I absolutely know what my role is,” Hager said. “The last couple of years, I’ve played reserve linebacker and played on special teams. I just try to do everything the best of my ability and try to work hard and do what I can to help the team.”
During the Art Briles era, Hager was one of Baylor’s most prominent defensive players as he became a three-time all-Big 12 linebacker who amassed 322 career tackles. He anchored Baylor’s defense during the 2013-14 Big 12 championship seasons.
It was an impressive college career for an overlooked two-star recruit out of Austin Westlake High School, who was set to attend Texas as a preferred walk-on before Baylor offered him a scholarship a couple weeks before the 2010 national signing day.
If anybody thought Hager’s NFL career would be short-lived like so many late-round draft picks, he’s proven skeptics wrong again. His intelligence, work ethic and instincts for the game have benefited him well in the NFL.
Former Rams coach Jeff Fisher knew Hager’s football genes when they selected him in the 2015 draft. Fisher was the Eagles’ defensive coordinator when Britt Hager began his NFL career in 1989.
The Rams replaced Fisher with McVay in 2016, a coaching wunderkind who had previously served as the Washington Redskins’ offensive coordinator. Now 33, McVay is less than six years older than the 26-year-old Hager.
“The way he communicates, you’d never guess how young he is,” Hager said. “But he’s been doing it for so long that (his age) never bothered me and it’s never a concern for other players either. When you listen to him talk and the way he carries himself, it’s special. He’s incredibly smart football-wise, dealing with players and getting guys in the right position and in the right package.”
The Rams’ up-tempo offensive style has destroyed NFL defenses, but it’s nothing new to Hager, who saw similar high-speed offenses during his five years at Baylor.
“It’s similar from a tempo and no-huddle offense standpoint, and the way they use the snap count,” Hager said. “It’s pretty amazing what we’ve done here the last two years offensively.”
While the Rams’ high-scoring offense has grabbed most of the attention this season, the defense has carved out a niche of his own behind the leadership of end Aaron Donald, who could repeat as NFL defensive player of the year after collecting 20.5 sacks in the 2018 regular season.
“It doesn’t matter if people don’t talk about the defense as much,” Hager said. “We’ve done an excellent job getting stops and forcing turnovers. It’s a team game and we’re playing well.”
All eyes on stopping Tom Terrific
Stopping quarterback Tom Brady and his high-powered offense will be a major challenge as the Patriots try to win their sixth Super Bowl.
Making their ninth Super Bowl appearance of the Bill Belichick era, the Patriots have much more postseason experience than any other NFL team. The Rams are making their first Super Bowl appearance since 2002 when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl with a 20-17 win over the then-St. Louis Rams.
“It’s awesome because everyone knows Tom Brady and the Patriots and what they’ve done over the years,” Hager said. “We’re just going to approach it like it’s a team we’ve got to beat. We have to focus on what they do and our game plan, and not get caught up in playing on a national stage and the atmosphere surrounding it.”
Hager’s old friend, quarterback Nick Foles, led the Eagles to a 41-33 win over the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl. Foles graduated from Austin Westlake in 2007 and played football with Hager’s older brother, Bron.
During his rookie year with the Rams in 2015, Bryce played with Foles before he signed with Kansas City in 2016. Foles helped Hager transition into the NFL and they’ve stayed in contact over the years.
“He was there my rookie year and was definitely a help in the locker room,” Hager said. “When you have a familiar face in the locker room, it’s a comfort.”
A December 2014 Baylor graduate, Hager has continued to keep an eye on the Bears and is thrilled about the program Matt Rhule is building as he approaches his third season in Waco.
Rhule led the Bears to a 7-6 record and a win over Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl in 2018 after a 1-11 debut season in 2017.
“Coach Rhule has done a great job with the program,” Hager said. “From the season they had two years ago, it was a good turnaround. I’m excited to see how they do in the next few years.”