JACKSONVILLE — Football just wasn’t fun for Jonathan Hagler before the start of the 2016 season, his first year at Jacksonville State.
He came to Jacksonville after a year at junior college Arizona Western as a safety.
Hagler, then a junior, knew he had a short window of time with the Gamecocks. When the depth chart was set about a week before the season, he realized he wasn’t going to see a lot of action on defense. And it got to him.
“Last year I got caught up in what people were thinking,” Hagler said. “You come in, and people expect you to do stuff. Especially if you’re a JUCO player.”
He was seeing action on special teams, but he knew there was more he could do to contribute to the team. Once his junior year was over, he did something about it.
Not too long after JSU’s second round loss against Youngstown State, Hagler was back to work during Christmas break.
Hagler received a text from senior linebacker Joel McCandless at 4:30 a.m. one morning asking if he was awake. He was and they both went to run at a track.
“It was freezing,” Hagler recalled. “I don’t know what we were thinking. We needed gloves on. Then we would get up and we just started running. After that, we got into a routine.”
The routine was to work out before team workouts. Then work out again after team workouts were over.
“You start obsessing over trying to get better,” Hagler said. “You become so meticulous with everything you’re trying to do. You need people like that.”
Then once spring football rolled around, an opportunity arose for Hagler.
Siran Neal was in the process of making a transition from strong-side linebacker to cornerback after the graduation of Jaylen Hill.
It opened up a spot on the defense and Hagler knew it was his chance. And it was his last chance since he was heading into his senior campaign.
Hagler hadn’t played linebacker since his junior year of high school at Minor, but he knew he could do the job. So he approached his coaches about making the move.
“They gave me a practice or two and the rest is history at this point,” Hagler said.
The senior earned his first career start at strong-side linebacker in JSU’s season opener against Chattanooga. Hagler returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown.
Last week at Austin Peay, he recorded a career-high 11 tackles and added his second interception of the season. It was the Gamecocks’ first double-digit tackle performance this season. Hagler had nine tackles all of last year.
Neal, who was first team all-Ohio Valley Conference last year at the same position, has been impressed with his teammate’s performance this year.
“He’s actually doing a better job than I did,” Neal said. “I had dropped picks and he is getting the picks. … Like I told him before the season, he is going to love that spot. You get all the action.”
Everything clicked for Hagler once he started having fun again during spring football.
“I was just out there flying around, having fun and wasn’t thinking,” he said. “It felt like back in high school and how it’s supposed to be. I was enjoying the game again.”
And he got to where he is now because of the countless hours of extra work he put in during the offseason.
“It was just trying to get back to the thing that helped me get back to this point; just good, old, hard work,” Hagler said. “I became my own worst enemy last year. I just had to get back to basics and out-grind everybody.”
Jacksonville State jumped up a spot to No. 3 in the FCS Coaches poll and the STATS FCS Top 25 rankings after Youngstown State’s 31-28 loss to South Dakota. … Senior running back Roc Thomas was named OVC offensive player of the week while redshirt-junior De’Marcus Flowers earned OVC co-specialist of the week. Thomas ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns against Austin Peay last week. It was his seventh 100-yard game in his JSU career and third this year. Flowers had an 87-yard kickoff return late in the 34-14 win over the Govs. … Expect to see cornerbacks Reggie Hall (ankle) and Yul Gowdy (knee) ready to bounce back from injuries Saturday. “We should get them back, which will help us on the back end,” JSU coach John Grass said Monday at the Gamecocks' weekly press conference.