By Ted Parrish
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
When Bryce Hager was a child, he wanted to be just like his father, Britt Hager. He knew that wasn't an easy task, but he wanted it more than anything.
"Ever since he could walk, Bryce has wanted to be fast," Britt Hager recalls. "He loved soccer and hockey as a child, but was always looking forward to football."
The elder Hager, an All-American linebacker for the University of Texas, is UT's all-time leading tackler with 499 career stops. Britt was drafted in the third round of the 1989 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles and played nine seasons in the league.
Bryce grew up in Austin and attended Westlake High School, where he was an all-state linebacker for the Chaparrals. Hager made 158 tackles, had eight sacks and one interception as a senior, leading Westlake to the 5A state title game.
After choosing to continue his football career at Baylor, Bryce took a redshirt year as a true freshman and worked with the practice squad. In 2011, he played in all 13 games on special teams and as a reserve linebacker.
In the spring of 2012, Hager earned the starting nod at middle linebacker as a redshirt sophomore.
"It's a good feeling, but you have a lot pressure on you because you don't really know what to expect," Hager said. "I was definitely nervous, but after the first couple of games, it goes away and you just expect to be the starter and you have to play like it."
It wasn't all easy for Hager though. He had to make great improvements in order for defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to be confident in him. He especially struggled with tackling in 2011 and went into spring camp knowing that his playing time would not increase if he did not step up.
"I had to improve on all the little things, different kinds of coverage and back pedaling," Hager said. "The biggest thing I had to correct was my tackling. I went into the spring and really focused on tackling."
One of the most exciting things for a coach is having a chance to watch players grow and improve from the very beginning. Baylor linebackers coach Jim Gush is no different.
"I have seen Bryce grow from the first time he stepped on campus until now, and he has really shown that he can be a leader," Gush said. "I have seen that our defensive players have really started to gravitate toward him. He makes all the calls on defense and it is very important to him to make sure everyone is doing the right thing."
Even though Bryce has started off extremely strong this season, Gush doesn't believe that he has reached his potential yet.
"He has a ways to go, and he has a pretty high ceiling," Gush said. "My goal every day is to push him and get him one rung higher towards his ceiling."
It is hard to imagine that Bryce's ceiling could be any higher after accumulating 54 tackles (13.5 per game) through four games, ranking him number one in the nation, but Gush insists that Hager will be even better.
"I don't think that he handled the pressure of a conference road game like he should have, and he knows that," Gush said. "It is all a learning process and even though there weren't a lot of positives from the West Virginia game, the experience can be a positive in itself. He will learn and improve before it is all said and done."
Bryce isn't sure what he wants to do once he graduates, but he knows how important getting a Baylor degree is.
"I haven't really decided what I want to do if football doesn't work out, but I am a communications major and plan on using that however I can," Hager said.
Britt knows the linebacker position as well as anyone in football and is very pleased with the way his son has started the season.
"I told Bryce before the season started to go out and have fun," Britt said. "Work hard in school and work hard on the field. I told him, 'have fun, play fast and hit hard.'"
The middle linebacker position is a very complicated position and Bryce knows that he has to be very precise throughout a game.
"There is so much speed on the field. You are thinking about a million things before the snap, you have to line up everyone and you have to be ready for anything," Bryce explained.
Bryce has a long way to go this season and for the rest of his career at Baylor, but Gush feels like he has taken a huge step toward being like his father.
"Bryce is moving towards the level of intensity and physicality that his father played with," Gush said. "If he plays as well as his dad did, we will have a great, great player."