Javon Hargrave’s college defensive coordinator admits he doesn’t really remember when exactly he first coined the nickname Gravedigger for the future NFL pro.
But he has a good idea why.
“I’d imagine he probably put his hands on somebody pretty violently and it gave me that image of domination,” Mike Adams said to NBC Sports Philadelphia last week.
Hargrave, the 27-year-old defensive tackle who just signed a three-year, $39 million contract to join the Eagles, credits Adams for coming up with his nickname during Hargrave’s first spring at South Carolina State University in 2012.
Back then, Hargrave was an undersized prospect from a small town at an FCS school, but the Bulldogs’ coaching staff saw something special in him. You didn’t get a nickname until you earned it … and Hargrave earned his quickly.
“In the spring, that was his thing,” Hargrave said on a conference call with Philly reporters, “calling me the Gravedigger because I’m always jumping on quarterbacks.”
Adams, now the defensive coordinator at Mercer University in Georgia, said there was just something explosive and powerful about Hargrave even back then. He watched Hargrave win all his battles inside with a dominance that reminded him of former NFL nose tackle Gilbert Brown, who previously had the nickname Gravedigger because of his celebratory dance. And Hargrave’s surname made it easy.
Thus, a nickname was born.
“He was early on the Gravedigger,” Adams said.
But Hargrave didn’t arrive at South Carolina State that way.
The early beginnings
Hargrave grew up in Salisbury, North Carolina and went to North Rowan High, a regional school in Spencer (pop. 3,308). He was a smart kid but academic issues forced him to miss what would have been his freshman season in college in 2011.
Because of all that, Hargrave ended up at South Carolina State, a Historically Black College and University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, but didn’t arrive on campus until January of 2012. He got there just in time for exhausting winter workouts as the coaching staff prepared its team for a brutally hot spring.
Hargrave was 265 pounds and out of shape.
While at home, Hargrave did his best to stay active but it wasn’t enough. And running five 300-yard shuttles wasn’t easy.
“He ended up just about passing out on the last one,” Hargrave’s former DL teammate and longtime friend James Settles said with a chuckle, remembering how they met. “I had to go run across the field and help him to the finish line.”
Despite that, there were still signs of greatness to come.
“A lot of people couldn’t see it because, like I said, he wasn’t in shape,” Bulldogs longtime defensive line coach David Blanchard said. “But his first step was amazing, just getting off the ball. I know I couldn’t believe it. I told the guys, I said, ‘man this guy is special.’ And he was actually laying on the ground getting water. I was like, ‘no, this guy is good.’”
Adams, the defensive coordinator, saw the explosion and the athleticism too. But he was more struck by the perseverance.
Hargrave was a young, out-of-shape kid and those workouts were a “tremendous shock” for him, but he powered through. He forced himself to finish all of them. That was when the quiet kid with the ever-present smile began to earn the coaching staff’s respect.
Amazing feats of strength
Hargrave was good as a freshman and great as a sophomore but he still wasn’t getting much national attention early in his junior season.
That changed on Oct. 25, 2014.
In a 20-14 win over Bethune-Cookman, Hargrave was a complete menace and tied an FCS record with six sacks in the game.
“I ain’t never seen a D-lineman take over a game like that with my own two eyes,” said former Bulldogs running back and Hargrave’s close friend Jalen “Scoot” Simmons. “To be there as it happened was just eye-opening. That’s crazy.”
Simmons remembers how their offense struggled that day and how Hargrave lifted the team. Hargrave remembers it as “the game that really put me on the map.”
But most of the people we spoke to said that game was great but it was just one great game of many. They were used to seeing that kind of domination from Hargrave.
“That six-sack game, it was just a day he was hot,” Settles said. “To me, it wasn’t nothing out of the ordinary. I was used to seeing him do that all the time. That was the norm to me, really.”
Blanchard remembers a game in Atlanta during Hargrave’s sophomore season when he chased down a running back from behind all the way down the field after he broke loose. Adams remembers a game against North Carolina Central in 2013, when Hargrave dominated in a win a season after they were blown out by the same team.
And then there were the literal feats of strength. Both Settles and Simmons claim Hargrave would squat 700 pounds and could have done more if the strength staff would have let him.
“He’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever seen in the weight room,” said Simmons, who spent time with four different NFL teams after his college career ended.
The Eagles almost drafted him
Hargrave became an Eagle this offseason but he was pretty close to becoming an Eagle in 2016. During that pre-draft process, the Birds were very interested in him.
In fact, the Eagles were one of a handful of teams to send their defensive line coach to the South Carolina State pro day on March 30, 2016.
“I remember working out for the Eagles at my pro day,” Hargrave said. “That was one of the teams that I thought was going to draft me.”
Before the pro day, Hargrave had put together quite an impressive performance at the East-West Shrine Bowl, the Senior Bowl and then at the combine.
The Eagles were very interested, so they sent then-defensive line coach Chris Wilson to Orangeburg to get a closer look. Wilson, now the defensive line coach at the University of Colorado, spoke to NBC Sports Philadelphia last week.
“We went down and watched him for his pro day and to do an evaluation and the kid’s as good as advertised,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to put our hands on him, put our eyes on him, watch him and then go back and look at his college career. You just knew this kid had a chance to be a special player.”
Wilson said he happily reported back to the Eagles’ front office that he thought Hargrave was a great player who would fit perfectly into Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 scheme. And he loved Hargrave’s demeanor, saying the prospect had great self-awareness. The only question Wilson and others had, despite South Carolina State’s storied program, was about the level of competition Hargrave faced in college. But it didn’t matter too much; the Eagles put Hargrave high on their board.
On draft day, the Eagles were on the clock at pick No. 79 in the third round and Hargrave was available. It came down to two options, but they took offensive lineman Isaac Seumalo from Oregon State.
“I think overall our personnel department felt like [Seumalo] was the best player on our board and that’s the direction we went,” Wilson said.
Hargrave went 10 picks later to the Steelers.
At least he’s an Eagle now
After four years of two-gapping in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense — he handled it quite well — Hargrave is excited to be back in a 4-3 defense that will allow him to get up the field and after quarterbacks.
“It’s every D-lineman’s dream to play in a system like this,” Hargrave said.
While the Eagles are now on their third defensive line coach in five years under Pederson, the basics of the defense are still the same and the responsibilities of defensive linemen haven’t changed much either.
“I think it’s always about scheme and fit,” Wilson said. “It think coming to a more attack style in Philly more than what they were doing in Pittsburgh, I think that will bode well for him.”
That’s exactly what Hargrave’s former teammates and coaches had been telling him too. Simmons said he told his buddy he needed to get back to an attacking defense and get away from those double-teams. Mission accomplished.
Those who were close to Hargrave during his college years can’t wait to see what he’s able to do with the Eagles.
Hargrave left South Carolina State for the NFL back in 2016 but has stayed tight with several of his former teammates and coaches. They all say he’s still the same guy. On the football field, he’s as hungry as ever. Off the field, he’s the same quiet kid with the big smile and easy-going attitude.
To his old teammates, he’s just their buddy. They still call him Hargrave, just like they always have.
But you can call him Gravedigger. After all, he’s earned it.
Photos courtesy of South Carolina State University.
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