Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Grambling greats: Jason Hatcher

Grambling's Hatcher has gotten hot at right time
Jena defensive end put the hurt on Alcorn
December 4, 2005
This column was included in a three-part submission to the Associated Press Managing Editors of Louisiana and Mississippi that ultimately won first place for column writing.

By Nick Deriso
LORMAN, Miss. — As Grambling State defensive end Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher rode through Port Gibson on the way to this game, the team bus passed a city limits sign that quotes General U.S. Grant.

"Too beautiful," it says, "to burn."

Alcorn State's offensive line was another story. Just three minutes in, Hatcher all but won the game Saturday for Grambling.

He stormed in to rattle Tony Hobson as the freshman Alcorn quarterback made a desperate attempt at picking up a bad snap and running it out of the end zone to avoid a safety.

When the play was over, Alcorn State was on the 1-yard line after the 19-yard loss, and Hobson was leaving the field in an ambulance.

Alcorn State never recovered, falling 46-19.

Hatcher, who entered this contest ranked second in the conference for sacks and tackles for a loss, added six more — with two for a loss.

Hatcher rushed Alcorn into an interception by senior Jermaine Mills to end the first half, then forced a fumble that went out of bounds to start the second. Once the game was in hand, coaches let younger players substitute on the line.

The damage was already done.

"That hit on the quarterback was head-to-head," Hatcher said. "I hope he's doing OK. But it changed the game."

A coachable, rangy 6-6, 295-pounder, the Jena product seems to be getting better with every game this season, seems to discover something about himself on every play.

"Learning the position, and making plays, getting a feel for it, that has been exciting," said Hatcher. "I am having a lot of fun out here."

Teams double up on this all-conference first teamer and, despite Grambling's aggressive substitution scheme, Hatcher is so important to the defense that he is the one lineman who almost never leaves the field. That leads wary opponents to cheat, often sending a running back over to chip block Hatcher.

"I feel like my presence keeps everybody going. As the guys rotate in, those guys know I am giving my all — and they will too. That's why they keep me out there."

First-year defensive line coach Darnell Wall even added a new wrinkle over the past couple of weeks, moving Hatcher inside to defensive tackle for a few plays.

"He was less of a talker at first," said Wall. "He had to grow into being more of a vocal leader. That has come later."

Hatcher has also begun to flourish with help from strength and conditioning coach Sam Petitto, who tinkered with Hatcher's pregame routines.

"In the off-season program this year, I was able to get my mind and body a lot stronger," said Hatcher.

Petitto's inventive methods to increase flexibility and speed have also kept Hatcher on the field this season, the first time he's worked through an entire campaign at Grambling without missing time to injury since becoming a regular starter in 2003.

"There's also being lucky," said Petitto, a former strength and conditioning assistant under Hal Mumme at Southeastern Louisiana. "He's been very fortunate. But there's been a commitment from him. He has the right mindset."

That framework was set by a tough childhood.

"Every scout that comes through, comes to see me about Hatcher," Wall said. "They love his attitude. He's a homebody. You won't find him running the street."

Hatcher lost his mother at age 16, leaving him to look after a younger sister. "I had to grow up," he admits, "real fast."

He did. He's a married father when most of his teammates are still trying on different adult personas.

"That made me look at things a lot differently than some of the other guys," said Hatcher.

All opponents have been seeing is stars.

"The stability of family, having folks he has to take care of, that has helped Hatcher along," said GSU coach Melvin Spears. "It has not only made him more mature as a person, but also as a player. He's one of our most disciplined players."

What's next is almost certainly a career in the NFL. Hatcher passes the eyeball test for scouts. Better still, he's become a gym rat, working out incessantly.

The game tape that most NFL scouts are requesting is Grambling's Sept. 17 date against Washington State, where Hatcher battled with left tackle Bobby Byrd. His seven-tackle performance against the Pac-10 school impressed WSU coach Bill Doba, who said Hatcher was as good as any lineman he's seen.

DraftShowcase.com has Hatcher listed as the No. 18 prospect in the nation among small school players. Diamond in the Rough, a Web site devoted to black college prospects, calls Hatcher a sleeper.

Even so, Hatcher is pragmatic about the draft: "I never hope for anything," he said. "I'll just let everything fall where it may."

That maturity impresses his coach.

"Hatcher understands now," said Spears, "that his best football, his true greatness, is in front of him."

That's got to worry the offensive guys who find themselves lined up there.

Hatcher is, quite simply, on fire.

NICK DERISO is sports editor at The News-Star, 411 N. Fourth St., Monroe, La., 71201. Contact him at 362-0234 or at nderiso@thenewsstar.com.

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Some showing off will be good thing
Grambling duo earns Combine invites
January 1, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Grambling State will double up on NFL Combine participants in 2006.

GSU coach Melvin Spears says both quarterback Bruce Eugene and defensive end Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher will attend — a year after Kenneth Pettway became the first GSU player since 2001 to garner the coveted invite.

"Not many people get invited; that's a select group. It's quite an honor," said Eugene, who is working at an Arizona off-season program.

The combine, held in Indianapolis each spring, puts NFL hopefuls through several days of speed, strength, agility and intelligence tests for scouts, coaches and executives.

"That opportunity is why I pulled Bruce out of all the all-star games, and why he's working himself so hard right now," Spears said. "He's going three times a day out in Phoenix."

Make Plays is perhaps best known for its work with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. "I'm working on getting my weight down," Eugene said. "I'm just going to keep working, and hope good things happen for me."

The New Orleans native had ballooned up to 300 pounds while recovering from a knee injury last season, but has since lost more than 50 of those pounds. The extra weight and a sore knee meant a loss of agility, so Eugene says that is also a focus in his training.

"He is in good shape; they found that out when he had a stress test when he got there," Spears said. "They couldn't believe the kind of shape he is in. He's just big."

Meanwhile, Spears said Hatcher is in Orlando, Fla., with South Carolina transfer Moe Thompson, an academic casualty last season. "Even tough Moe never played for us, he will still go into the league as a Grambling guy," Spears said.

Diamonds in the Rough, a Web site devoted to black college draft prospects, has Eugene listed at No. 3 with his stock on the rise. Hatcher is also in the Top 10 — along with running back Ab Kuuan, who is expected to return.

Hatcher, a Jena product, was named first-team all-conference after making 71 tackles (49 solo) with 21½ tackles for loss and 11 sacks in 2005. He also had one forced fumble, 16 quarterback hurries, a pass breakup and a blocked kick. Season highlights included eight-tackle performances against both Jackson State and Southern.

Eugene passed for 4,408 yards, 56 touchdowns and only six interceptions in 456 attempts after missing 2004 to a knee injury. He tied the single-season I-AA touchdown mark held by former Mississippi Valley State quarterback Willie Totten, broke Totten's I-AA career mark of 139 career TDs with 140 and finished second to Alcorn State product Steve McNair in I-AA career passing yards with 13,530.

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GSU's Hatcher creating buzz
Grambling defender's size opens eyes at Combine
February 27, 2006

By Nick Deriso
Grambling State defender Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher made an impression even before his scheduled workout for scouts today at the NFL Combine.

At 6-5 7/8, the Jena product measured out as the tallest defensive lineman in Indianapolis, receiving special notice on NFL.com. A married father, Hatcher promised to take the added attention in stride.

"To be honest, there's no pressure on me," said Hatcher, voted All-Southwestern Athletic Conference and All-Louisiana last season. "I'm going in there like I've got nothing to lose. I'm just going to give it my best."

His atypical size could make Hatcher particularly appealing for clubs looking for taller hybrid lineman who can penetrate quickly in the 3-4 scheme. That defense is employed by New England, Dallas, Houston (who drafted former teammate Kenneth Pettway in 2005), Baltimore, Cleveland, San Diego, San Francisco and current champion Pittsburgh.

Other clubs that could be interested include Denver, where one Scout.com mock draft has Hatcher being drafted at No. 117.

"I really don't wish for any team," he said. "I just want the chance to play football. Whichever one likes Jason Hatcher, that's where I'll go."

As evaluators get an up-close look at Hatcher's rare combination of pass-rushing skill with run-stopping strength, his stock has continued to rise.

Scott Wright of NFLDraftCountdown.com noted that Hatcher "has outstanding size and a huge frame. He can penetrate and knows how to get after the quarterback."

ESPN's Mel Kiper listed Hatcher as a "second-day steal," while Glenn Bernardi of DraftDaddy.com has Hatcher among its Elite 20 for small schools.

"He reminds me of current NFL defensive end/tackle Richard Seymour, with a similar body structure and movement within the interior line area," said Ken Becks of FantasyFootballToolbox. "Among their other similarities are an active motor and the ability to beat opponents consistently in one-on-one situations. If he were to add the extra weight, he could really be a force at the next level."

The knock on Hatcher, as it is with so many standout Division I-AA prospects, is that he might have "gotten by on talent, because he was so much better than the competition," according to Wright and others.

Hatcher is hoping that today's performance at Indianapolis puts some of those fears to rest.

"I'm just doing going to do what I do best," said Hatcher. "I think I was born to do this. I feel like somebody will give me a shot."

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GSU to hold pro day for NFL scouts next

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Former Grambling State defender Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher says he pulled up at the end of his 40-yard dash in the NFL Scouting Combine.

So, he's considering another run during GSU's Pro Day this morning on campus, hoping to better the 4.91 mark he set in Indianapolis.

Hatcher, a Jena product, was worried about a nagging hamstring problem — but he added that "it's more mental than physical. I feel fine."

Grambling coach Melvin Spears says a limited slate of seniors will join Hatcher in a 10 a.m. session with NFL scouts today. They are: Quarterback Bruce "The Big Easy" Eugene (GSU's other combine invitee), receiver Moses Harris, defensive tackles Lennard Patton and Moe Thompson, cornerback Marques Binns and offensive tackle Jonathan Banks.

Hatcher is coming off his best season at Grambling, finishing with 71 total tackles — including 21½ for loss and 11 sacks. He put up eight-tackle performances against Jackson State and then Southern, during the nationally televised Bayou Classic, and had three sacks in the season opener alone against Alabama A&M.

Eugene, meanwhile, was named conference player of the year after breaking a 20-year-old Division I-AA mark for touchdowns in a season. Banks earned first-team I-AA All America honors from the Sports Network and joined Eugene and Hatcher on the first-team all-conference squad.

Binns, an Oregon transfer, was invited to the Las Vegas All-American Classic after posting 36 tackles last year. Harris, a perennial all-conference selection, returned after a season lost to injury and finished third on the team for receptions, yards and touchdowns.

But neither Patton nor Thompson played in 2005. Patton missed the year when he apparently signed with an agent, while Thompson was never cleared after transferring from South Carolina.
"Our Pro Day will give the scouts a chance to evaluate the ones they haven't seen individually," Spears said. "And, who knows, Bruce and Hatcher might even improve on their combine performances here in the comforts of home."

Hatcher said attending the NFL's annual scouting event, which he's often compared to a job interview, was a learning experience — and one he will never forget.

"I was really excited," said Hatcher, who posted a 9-foot-5 broad jump and 35½ vertical. "I approached the whole thing like it was a business situation, and I thought it went well."
Hatcher sparked early buzz when, at 6-5 7/8, he measured out as the tallest defensive lineman at the combine — something Hatcher said he is still trying to take in.

"I thought Mario (Williams, a coveted lineman from North Carolina State) was taller," Hatcher said, laughing softly. "We rode the shuttle in to the combine, and we walked in together. I was shocked. It must have been the shoes."

Pro teams have followed up with requests for individual tryouts. Hatcher said Jacksonville has scheduled a session for March 14, with Cincinnati following on March 20. Eugene will work out for the Eagles on March 17.

Other teams that have expressed interest in Hatcher include Kansas City, Baltimore and San Francisco. Eugene has also gotten looks from Jacksonville (where former GSU standout James Harris is an executive), Kansas City and Seattle.

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Jena's Hatcher drafted by Dallas
April 29, 2006

By Nick Deriso
Former Grambling defender Jason Hatcher, a native of nearby Jena, became the highest drafted GSU product since 1993 when Dallas selected him late in the third round of the NFL Draft.

The 6-6, 283-pound converted defensive end was taken with the No. 92 overall pick. An All-State tight end at Jena High, Hatcher flourished despite the belated start on defense at Grambling.

Hatcher tallied 33 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five sacks in his first year on defense as a junior. He finished his senior season in 2005 with 71 total tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks.

Receiver Jake Reed was Grambling's last first-day pick, going in the third round of the 1991 draft. The most recent selection was defender Kenneth Pettway, who went in the seventh round by Houston last year.

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NFL comes calling locally
LSU's Whitworth and Wroten, then Grambling's Hatcher are first-day picks

By Nick Deriso
A trio of north Louisiana products found new pro football homes on Saturday, beginning with West Monroe's king-sized Andrew Whitworth.

He became the first area native to be selected in the 2006 NFL Draft when Cincinnati chose the LSU tackle in the second round — and at No. 55 overall.

The 6-7, 334-pound two-time All-SEC lineman admits he's never visited Ohio, though that didn't dampen his enthusiasm. "I'm not worried about that," said Whitworth. "My concern is working hard and getting on the field this year for Coach (Marvin) Lewis."

Meanwhile, LSU teammate Claude Wroten, a Bastrop product, fell all the way to No. 68, where he was picked up as a third-rounder by St. Louis.

The 6-3, 293-pound Wroten was initially predicted for first-round selection in this draft, but became embroiled in off-the-field troubles and saw his stock plummet. He's coming off a senior campaign where he recorded 44 tackles, 10½ tackles for loss, nine QB hurries and 4½ sacks.

Finally, Dallas selected Jena's Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher, a former Grambling defender, with the No. 92 overall pick.

An All-State tight end at Jena High, Hatcher flourished at GSU after switching to defense over his last two seasons. He would tally 33 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five sacks in his first year on defense as a junior. Hatcher then finished his all-conference senior season in 2005 with 71 total tackles, 21½ tackles for loss and 11 sacks.

"That's back-to-back draft picks, after (2005 seventh-rounder Houston pick) Kenny Pettway, at Grambling — and it's something to be proud of," said GSU coach Melvin Spears. "It couldn't happen to a better guy. He's another in the long line of Grambling greats to go on now."

Receiver Jake Reed was Grambling's last first-day pick, going in the third round of the 1991 draft.

Still waiting are: Northwestern State return Toby Zeigler, a former Neville High School standout at receiver; Ruston product Kyle Williams, another of Whitworth's teammates at LSU; and a host of other standouts from the three area university programs.

Experts like Scout.com and Rivals.com had projected Whitworth for a third-round spot, but he quickly moved up the draft board after an impressive showing at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this year.

Whitworth's 9-foot-4 in the broad jump and 30½-inch leap in the vertical jump topped everyone in his group at that event — drawing specific praise from NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. He bench-pressed 225 pounds a total of 28 times to finish tied for fourth among all offensive linemen in Indianapolis

Whitworth also got a chance to meet his future boss.

"I sat down with Coach Lewis at the combine, and I really liked him," Whitworth said. "Just like any other team, they are trying to put together a great team for next year. We talked about what I could bring to the table and what he was looking for from me. We had a good meeting. It's turns out, we were on the same page."

A four-year starter who played in a school-record 52 games with the first team at LSU, Whitworth won three state championships in four years with the Rebels. His tenure in Baton Rouge included multiple postseason bowls and the 2003 BCS Championship.

Whitworth was rated as the nation's third-best offensive tackle going into 2005 by The Sporting News. But he wasn't generating first-day buzz until the combine.

"Watching on film, you don't get the chance to meet me and get a feel for my knowledge of the game — and my passion for the game," Whitworth said. "Sitting down, I got to prove that, to show them how much I care about what I do."

The Rams acquired the Wroten pick through a trade involving San Francisco and Denver.
Wroten had been primarily a basketball player at Bastrop. He followed that up with a two-year stint of junior-college hoops at Mississippi Delta Community College before transferring to LSU.

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An important day
A classic 'tweener, Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher is perfectly suited for the Cowboys, who were looking for taller hybrid lineman that could penetrate quickly in the 3-4 scheme.

Dallas took the Jena product in the third round on Saturday - earning one of just three first-day "best pick" writeups from FOXSports.com's FootballOutsiders.

Hatcher "had 11 sacks last season for Grambling and wowed scouts this off-season by running in the 4.8 range in the 40," writes Nick Eatman, a DallasCowboys.com staff writer.

Hatcher is the highest draft pick out of Grambling since receiver Jake Reed was picked up by Minnesota at No. 68 back in 1993. Before that you have to go back to 1986, when defensive end Leonard Griffin was chosen at No. 63.

He had been variously predicted as a second-day guy.

So this was an important day indeed for Hatcher, and not just because of the rarity of such a high selection for his alma mater. A married father, he's remained tightly focused on what this opportunity could mean for his family and his hometown throughout the process.

He plays football with such fiery intensity because he sees it as a responsibility. There is too much riding on Hatcher to fail.

That's meant a steep incline in his proficiency at defensive end, notable because he only played the position for a couple of years. Even so, Hatcher came to master it well enough to become a first-day pick.

Having a frame like his, of course, doesn't hurt. He famously measured out at 6-5 7/8 at the NFL Scouting Combine, making him the tallest defensive lineman there - something that garnered him special notice on NFL.com.

But you can't measure this guy's heart.

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A joyful return to Grambling
Celebrated lineman honored after being drafted in the third round
May 3, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Former Grambling State defensive lineman Jason "Hatchet" Hatcher is still getting used to the attention.

Moments before entering a school celebration in honor of his third-round selection by Dallas in the NFL Draft, Hatcher ducked into the coaches' offices — and the room exploded with cheers, bear hugs and laughter.

"I'm trying to figure out who this Jason Hatcher is," joked Hatcher, who arrived in a Cowboys' T-shirt with wife Natasha. "I heard he went in the third round!"

Hatcher, the eighth defensive end taken in last weekend's draft, capped a Southwestern Athletic Conference championship season with first-team All-SWAC and then Sports Network All-America honors.

A converted Jena High tight end, Hatcher would amass more than 100 tackles, including 16 sacks, in just two seasons on defense. But the success didn't change this easy-going, mature father of two - ensuring that he'll always be a fan favorite in Grambling.

He returned to GSU on Tuesday for a noon reception in the Robinson Stadium Support Facility as the program's highest draft pick in more than a decade.

"It was an exciting day for me, and for everyone in Grambling as well," said GSU defensive line coach Charlie Lewis. "We all thought he would be taken on the first day. At 6-7, he's a prototype lineman, especially on the end."

Hatcher was honored along with former GSU passer Bruce Eugene, who signed a three-year free-agent contract with his hometown New Orleans Saints, and track coach Bertram Lovell. GSU recently won both the men's and women's titles in the SWAC Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

"I'd like to thank everybody for their support through my seasons here," Hatcher told the assembled group of supporters. "I want everyone to come see me and Bruce after we're gone."

Dr. Robert Dixon, Grambling's provost, attended in place of GSU school president Dr. Horace Judson, who was in Baton Rouge lobbying the Louisiana Legislature.

"I know that everyone who plays this game on Saturdays dreams of playing on Sundays," Dixon said. "You've been legends here and hopefully you'll be legends at the next level."

Somber moments like those were rare.

GSU head coach Melvin Spears, who oversaw Hatcher's move from tight end to the defensive line, offered a quip that illustrated the warmth and humor of this homecoming.

"He's going to be a great addition to America's other team," said Spears, laughing.

The event quickly devolved into an autograph session, as friends and teammates handed Hatcher pictures and mock playing cards to sign. Hatcher shared stories about his roller-coaster ride on draft day — which had been underway for eight hours when Dallas owner and general manager Jerry Jones rang.

His relief was palpable, even though the Cowboys had hinted at their interest early on.

"I had sat in the same place for hours," Hatcher said. "I told my wife, when Dallas comes up, if they don't pick me, it might be tomorrow (during Sunday's rounds four through seven)."

What came next has already become legend in this good guy's travelogue to the NFL: Jones called Hatcher's cell — and in his dumb-founded excitement, the unthinkable happened.

"He hung up the phone!" said Lewis, a 1979 Bayou Classic MVP from Grambling's famous "Trees of Terror" defensive line.

Hatcher chuckled softly at the memory. "My cheek must have hit the button, I was smiling so big," he said.

Dallas then traded with Jacksonville to get to the No. 92 position, and selected Hatcher.

"Right when I gave up hope," Hatcher said, "it happened."

The news came as Hatcher sat among friends and family in his hometown. Pandemonium ensued.

"Everybody went crazy," Hatcher said. "They just about beat me to death patting me on the back. I just broke down."

Hatcher said Dallas' early interest provides a platform for his commitment to a new team.

"Coach Parcells told me at my tryout that he was going to draft me when they were ready to take a defensive end," Hatcher said. "He kept his promise, so I'm going to keep my promise to him and work to make the team."

Hatcher will play for a defensive staff with Grambling connections.

Todd Bowles, former coach Doug Williams' first defensive coordinator, was hired as the Cowboys' secondary coach before last season. Current defensive coordinator Luther Palmer also interned through several Cowboys training camps, as did the team's late longtime trainer Ricky McCall.

"I grew up loving the Cowboys," Hatcher said. "That's a program that knows how to win. We'll be in the playoffs this year, and I hope to the Super Bowl in the next three years."

And when Dallas gets there, folks in Grambling believe Hatcher will be a cornerstone.

"Jerry Jones and Bill Parcells are two people who know talent, and the Cowboys are known for having a good defensive line," Lewis said. "Think of all the famous people that Dallas has had up front, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Bob Lilly, Randy White. Jason Hatcher's name will be used in the same sentence one day."

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