WORTH THE WAIT

Colts linebacker Tyjuan Hagler spent the early part of his NFL career waiting on a chance to play. He started seven games this past season and said the upcoming off-season conditioning program is a critical time to improve for the 2008 season.

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Hagler Spending Off-Season Looking to Improve on 2007 Season
INDIANAPOLIS - Tyjuan Hagler waited for this feeling for a while.

The better part of three years, actually.

Hagler, a fourth-year veteran outside linebacker for the Colts, spent the early seasons of his NFL career dealing with injuries. When he played, it was primarily on special teams. He waited for his opunity, for a time he could be healthy and show his ability.

That time came last season. Now, Hagler doesn't have to wait anymore. Now, he said, when he speaks of next season he can speak like a player who expects to play and play well.

And he said that's a good feeling, one worth the wait.

"That gave me a lot of confidence," Hagler said recently. "That really helped me out. I've been saying in interviews (in the past) what I could do, and I knew what I could do on the field. I had proved what I could do on the field, but now coming in, I know I can do better than what I did last year.

"I'm definitely still looking to get better each and every week and be a better player than what I was last year. I want to get better each year."

Hagler, a fifth-round selection by the Colts in the 2005 NFL Draft from the University of Cincinnati, missed his rookie season with a sports hernia injury, then played in nine games as a special teams player in the 2006 season.

Last season, with outside backer Cato June signing as an unrestricted free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the off-season, and with veteran Rob Morris sustaining a knee injury in late September, Hagler moved into the starting lineup in early October.

"Once I got in the game, I felt like I was at home," Hagler said. "It felt like practice is much harder than the games really are. In practice, I'd thought, 'If it's this way in practice, the game's going to be much harder,' but practices are so much harder, because the coaches throw a lot of trick plays at you during practice just to see how you're going to react.

"Then, when you're in games and everyone's on the same page, everything is so much easier. You feel so much more confident out there. Everything is smooth.

"You're just playing and reacting. You're not thinking at all."

He started seven games last season, including four at strong-side backer, and along with weakside backer Freddy Keiaho and middle linebacker Gary Brackett helped the Colts emerge as one of the top young defenses in the NFL.

The Colts, after ranking 32nd in the NFL against the run in 2006, ranked 15th in the area last season, and ranked third in the NFL in overall defense.

Hagler, who also started three games at weakside linebacker, finished this past season with 60 tackles, 34 solos, and also had a sack and a quarterback pressure. He also forced one fumble and recovered another.

"I definitely proved I could do it last year, and I know I can do better," Hagler said. "My biggest thing is I take the off-season seriously. I want to get my mind ready and my body ready and get better and better."

The 2007 season was significant for Hagler in another way, too, he said. He moved positions during each of his first three seasons, playing middle linebacker as a rookie and weak-side backer in his second season. By the second half of this past season, he had solidified himself as the starter at strongside backer.

"I feel like I'm at home," Hagler said. "I feel like I have a home, but then again, I feel like I have a lot of work to do. On paper, I'm going in as the starter as of right now. I definitely want to fulfill that role. I want to make sure I'm ready to be a full-time starter. I want to make sure I'm up to the challenge.

"I want to make sure my body is 100 percent ready for that challenge."

That's one focus of the off-season program, preparing physically, but Hagler said as important a task is preparing mentally. He said he spent last week watching tape from the 2007 season, a process that he said is as difficult at times as it is important.

"I'm my biggest critic," Hagler said. "I always see something wrong in what I'm doing. I study the defense and how I can do things and how I can get better at things. I was here last week and went back and watched film. I was like, 'I could have done this much better and that much better.'

"It gets kind of mind-boggling a little bit. You know you should make that play and you're obviously capable of making it. At times you don't, but it is the NFL. I get kind of mad at myself. 'Why didn't I do this right? Why didn't I line up here? That's something I practice every day.'''

Having fewer such mistakes is a reason he said he's at the Colts' facility in mid-March. The off-season, he said, he is the chance to improve in the NFL. Hagler said he felt he made drastic improvement as a special teams player between 2006 - his first season playing extensively - and last season. The idea this off-season, he said, is a chance to make a similar improvement at linebacker.

"I came in last year and felt like I was clicking," he said. "Last year, special teams was a lot easier. This year, I'm going out and expecting the defense to be a lot easier.

"The most important part of the off-season is getting ready for the season. What you do in the off-season dictates what you do in the regular season. I'm definitely big on that."

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