Mark Hagen Interview: George Karlaftis brings ‘right approach’ to KC Chiefs

George Karlaftis, KC Chiefs. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
George Karlaftis, KC Chiefs. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images) /

We spoke with Purdue coach and co-defensive coordinator Mark Hagen to hear more about the pro potential of George Karlaftis.

Few men know the meaning and potential of the phrase “speed-to-power” like Mark Hagen. That’s because Purdue’s co-defensive coordinator has coached some of the best pass rushers who fit that description.

A few weeks ago, the Kansas City Chiefs added the latest example in Purdue pass rusher George Karlaftis. Selected at No. 30 overall in the first round, Karlaftis is a pro-ready prospect whose ability to overwhelm opposing linemen has been a national story since he was a freshman in West Lafayette, Indiana. According to Hagen, he profiles in a similar fashion to Ryan Kerrigan, another former Boilermakers pass rusher who relied on the same speed-to-power process.

Chiefs Kingdom is going to “love” the newest addition to the front line, says Hagen. While Karlaftis just turned 21 years old and comes with the buzz of being a first-round pick, Hagen is confident that Karlaftis will become a fan favorite quickly because of a humble demeanor that belies his incredible skill. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid already spoke about Karlaftis’ motor even in rookie mini-camp, so it seems as if his work ethic is already on display for all to see.

“He’s a throwback,” says Hagen in a recent interview with FanSided. “He loves to train and he loves to practice. He’s a true worker, whereas some guys who are really talented don’t like to do those things.

“George is going to go in ready to work. If I’m in the organization or a fan, that’s really what you want, right? Obviously, you want guys with a lot of talent, but you also want guys who will come in and get to work. You’ll get that from George. He’s very, very confident in his abilities yet he’s humble and knows he has to work his way up, just like he did at Purdue.”

Speaking of what he did at Purdue, Karlaftis was an instant hit in college football even as a freshman in the Big Ten when he put up 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in his first 12 games in 2019. Hagen explains that Karlaftis always had a vision for greatness and he follows that through with a rare work ethic and attention to detail that allows him to actualize such desired achievements.

“As a coach, you always hear about guys who want to be great, but they don’t always follow through with the details,” says Hagen. “This guy is a goal-setter. He told me early this past year that one of his goals in coming to Purdue was that he wanted to be part of a great run of defensive ends and that he wanted to be a first-round draft pick. Everything that he did day in and day out was to achieve that goal.

“Kansas City is getting a guy who is going to have the right approach to the situation. He loves football. He wants to be the very best he can be, so he’s going to be a sponge for his coaches and teammates in the locker room. And he’s going to work. He’s going to show up every day with his lunch pail. He’s going to do everything in his power to help the defense get off the field and get the ball back to Patrick Mahomes and that high-powered offense.”

Heading into the draft, Karlaftis had done everything on his end to make that first-round dream come true, but nothing is guaranteed in the drama and frenzy of a first-year player draft. Hagen says seven teams showed heavy interest, including the Arizona Cardinals, but that opportunity was lost when they traded No. 23 overall for Marquise “Hollywood” Brown in a deal with the Baltimore Ravens.

As the first round got deeper into its second half, Hagen was among those surrounding Karlaftis in the green room and admits things got a “little tense” as they waited for Karlaftis’ name to get called.

“Sitting in the green room, when the three edge guys rolled off within the first few picks, you think it’s what you need,” explains Hagen. “But then Jermaine Johnson, his area of the green room was right behind us, and we kept sneaking a peek down there. When there weren’t a lot of phone calls taking place, it got a little tense in the stretch run. But we were still hoping Kansas City would have great interest.

It really played out, in my opinion, in the best way that it could. George went in the first round which he deserved, but then going later means he goes to a great organization—one that’s ready-made to make a strong run in the playoffs. I had a couple of guys reach out on other NFL teams and they had nothing but great things to say about Coach Reid, the GM, and the whole organization.”

As for what fans should expect at the next level, Hagen is the first to admit that the past year from Karlaftis doesn’t look so great when you’re just skimming over the stat sheets.

“I think he’s very disruptive,” says Hagen.” You wouldn’t know that if you just looked at the five sacks. He had 11 or 12 tackles for loss total. Those are pedestrian numbers on the surface, but if you watch all 12 games he played in, he impacted every game and it wasn’t necessarily by sack numbers. He would get the quarterback off the spot, he’d hit the quarterback, he’d hurry the quarterback. This is also when teams were putting a second guy on him and sometimes a third guy, game-in and game-out.”

Hagen also explains that Karlaftis had adjusted his approach coming into the new year in order to respond to scouts and others who said he lacked a “speed component” to his game.

“Coming into the season, George wanted to prove he had a speed component to him,” says Hagen. “Early in the season, he got a little high on his rushes, but he started to correct that as the season went along. Really he went from speed to power and he was good with his long arm to make the quarterback uncomfortable again.”

Hagen singles out the Boilermakers’ early-season road game against 12th ranked Notre Dame in South Bend as a prime example of how coaches knew they had to avoid Karlaftis entirely—even ranked opponents.

“Go back and listen to what Brian Kelly said the week we played ‘em. He referred to George as a game-wrecker, and from play one, he was sliding the protection toward George,” says Hagen “They’d flex the tight end back in to chip and double George. Same thing with the backs. George never complained once. He just found a way to drive through and still had a sack in that game.

“They ran one RPO in that game and George hit the quarterback,” he continues. “So he was able to transition from run to pass immediately and the fact that the quarterback got hit as he was letting go of the ball, Kelly was, I think, the play-caller for Notre Dame and that was it. They weren’t going to call any more RPOs because they’d run the risk of George getting a sack or forced fumble.”

Next. Predicting game-by-game results for the Chiefs season. dark