The route of Indiana left tackle Luke Haggard very nearly didn’t bring him across the line of scrimmage from Ohio State, as it did last weekend.
When he was recruited from Santa Rosa Junior College in California, the Hoosiers intended to redshirt the true junior in 2020, affording him more time to put muscle on a 6-foot-7, 275-pound frame. Before he arrived at Santa Rosa, Haggard was at least 50 pounds lighter, too long and lean for any Division I program to be interested at all.
It was Santa Rosa coach Lenny Wagner who talked Haggard out of the idea of walking on at Cal, hoping to also join the rugby team.
“We explained to him, rugby is a club sport. You can play that your whole life,” Wagner said. “You have this short time to play big-time college football. When you’re done, there are plenty of rugby men’s leagues you can play in.”
The dream Wagner sold of D-I football came true, faster than anyone anticipated. The last two weeks, IU has been without starting left tackle Caleb Jones, and it’s been Haggard tossed into the fire, lined up across from defensive ends that coaches once thought he was too angular to adequately tame.
Not unlike many JUCO prospects, Haggard is accustomed with defying expectations, ending up at one place when it looked like his path was heading elsewhere. That route taught him a thing or two about how to approach opportunities like the one at IU.
“No matter what’s in your way, just keep pushing through it,” Haggard said. “I feel like I brought that mentality here. Coming here, supposed to be redshirting, and supposed to be third-string or whatever. I didn’t let that faze me. I just kept trying my hardest at practice and pushing.”
This blue-collar approach tracks back to Haggard’s days as a two-way lineman at Petaluma High. He was mostly quiet, unassuming. Only his height stuck out of a crowd, just enough for a coach from San Jose State to swing by practice, pointing out his long arms and athletic feet. Could be a good left tackle one day, he told Petaluma head coach Rick Krist.
But that college recruiter didn’t have a scholarship open. None of them ever did.
“People said he looks good, but we’re going to pass,” Krist said. “It just wasn’t the right fit.”
Haggard fit just fine at left tackle in Krist’s triple-option offense. Aside from his long arms and light feet, Haggard had these skillet-sized hands.
In those hands lied an optimism that Haggard wasn’t just tall, already 6-4 in his freshman year of high school. His skeletal structure was massive.
“I’m not a small guy, but when he shakes my hand, it’s like ‘Oh my god,’” Krist said. “We just wanted to get him beefier, because he was really, really skinny.”
Krist just needed time to work against Haggard’s metabolism, which wouldn’t allow much beyond 200 pounds. Haggard also needed time to believe in a vision of himself as an offensive tackle.
Sophomore year, Haggard started playing rugby, and he wasn’t bad. He played the “lock” position for a state championship squad, serving as the tall body teammates thurst in the air to retrieve inbounds passes. He ran with the ball some, too.
He was so athletic, one of Haggard’s uncles, Bob Nagy, who was a former prep teammate of Krist, had a common refrain when he saw Petaluma’s coach on the street.
“Put him at tight end!” Nagy said.
Krist didn’t think much of it. A tight end isn’t much different than a tackle in Petaluma’s triple-option. Both run-block.
But when Lenny Wagner talked Haggard out of heading the D-I walk-on route, he initially stuck him at defensive end.
“We would have let him play quarterback if that’s what he wanted to play, because we wanted him so bad,” Wagner said. “But we had some holes on the o-line, at left tackle especially. So we had to have another conversation.”
At offensive tackle is where Santa Rosa’s coaches saw the brightest future for Haggard. If they could push him toward 6-7, 300 pounds, there aren’t many humans on the planet built like that. Colleges across the country crave that player.
Haggard, always cerebral and mature, understood the logic. So a week before Santa Rosa’s first game of the 2018 season, Haggard was flipped to the offensive side of the ball. The assignment of the last month at IU is nothing compared to what Haggard endured as a 220-pound tackle versus 280-pound JUCO ends.
“We were mostly throwing the ball,” Wagner said. “We just needed an athlete that could keep distance between their best rush end and the quarterback. With that long frame of his, and his athletic ability, just be a wall with legs.”
Just by getting Haggard in front of more college coaches, Wagner made him a project D-I colleges would consider taking on. Within a year, programs like Oregon State and Fresno State were showing interest. Then UConn and IU entered the mix.
San Jose State offered, but the Spartans’ offensive line coach made a fatal error when he pushed for a commitment from a once-passed-over prospect.
“He said ‘I don’t think you can play at those places. They are recruiting you as a backup,’” Wagner said. “I think that did not sit well with Luke, and I think that sealed the deal that San Jose State was out.”
That left the door wide open for IU offensive line coach Darren Hiller. A native of California, Hiller knows the state’s JUCO system well. He’s known Wagner, and they kept in touch about the tackle with skillet-sized hands.
In Bloomington, Hiller just had to convince his head coach, Tom Allen, that a 6-7, 255-pound JUCO prospect was worth investing in.
“Yeah, he was tall, it’s easy to see he’s tall,” Allen said. “But sometimes, these guys are so linear, they have a hard time gaining weight to be 300 pounds and play on the offensive line in the Big Ten.”
Hiller flew out to Santa Rosa to get a detailed workup on the left tackle. He measured Haggard’s arms, his legs. Hiller watched him bend in a stance. He put drills on video for Allen to watch.
Allen trusted Hiller’s evaluation. Haggard was scheduled for a visit. It came a couple of days after an official visit to UConn.
“It’s tricky when kids go on these trips and they get squeezed,” Wagner said. “Before nobody wanted him, and all of a sudden there was a race to get him. I told Luke, don’t commit until you’ve seen both schools.”
Haggard didn’t jump at the offer from UConn, a school that ended up not even playing football in 2020 because of the pandemic. He made his way to Bloomington, and as soon as he shook Allen’s hand, the deal was all but sealed.
Allen was gripping a massive human.
“To me, it was the size of his hands,” Allen said. “That, to me, is what I saw, even in the pictures and the video we took of him … it was all those features you look at that. Even like his jaw — he’s a big guy, even though he’s light.
“You put all those pieces together and you look at the film and you get him here and you try to decide because you’re just projecting. What’s he going to be a year, two years from now?”
Haggard signed with the Hoosiers in December and enrolled midyear. Despite a pandemic-shortened offseason, Haggard labored in IU’s weight room to gain a couple dozen pounds.
By the time IU’s season neared, paperwork for Haggard’s JUCO credits, which had been put off, because the initial thought was he was redshirting and it could wait, had to be hastily reviewed. He was ahead of schedule, and in a fall season where every player is receiving another year of eligiblity from the NCAA, it made no sense to sit him.
Soon, the tackle who was too lean for D-I ball, who contemplated playing club rugby in college, was lining up across the line of scrimmage from four- and five-star prospects along OSU’s front.
In two weeks, Haggard has flashed quick feet in pass protection. In the run game, he could still use a little more power, but that’s OK. He’s nowhere near a finished product.
“Having my number called up and getting the starting spot was definitely a big wakeup call for me, knowing I really need to focus on the film and studying and also the weight factor,” Haggard said. “They weren’t too concerned about my weight, redshirting, being slow. But now that all this has gone on, I’ve had to step it up.”
Allen says Haggard is about 15 pounds away from that coveted 300-pound mark. But just seeing him line up on Saturdays for the No. 12 team in the country, it’s been a thrill for his former coaches.
Krist saw Haggard’s uncle on the street recently, as Nagy joked, “He still could have been a tight end.”
“Yeah,” Krist answered. “But he’s a tackle.”
Wagner has a line prepped for when he enters Petaluma next, talking to another batch of overlooked recruits.
“Every time I go into Petaluma, I’m going to ask ‘Who is getting recruited right now?’ Nobody will raise their hand,” Wagner said. “Well, guess what? Luke Haggard wasn’t getting recruited, either.”