NORMAN — You think Oklahoma’s Jeremiah Hall is versatile now? You should have seen him when he first started playing football.
“If we wanna go all the way back, I started at right guard when I was little,” Hall said this week. “I didn’t like that, so I quit because I didn’t have the ball in my hands.”
Hall caught a pass from Jalen Hurts in Saturday’s 55-16 win over Texas Tech and turned in a special play. It was fourth-and-11, and Hurts scrambled for a second, then checked down with a short throw to Hall. Hall had a defender right in front of him, but a slight juke-step made that tackler miss. It appeared Hall would be taken down from behind by a second Tech defender, but he spun at just the right time, avoided the tackle and rumbled downfield for a 23-yard gain.
Aside from Trey Millard hurdling one Texas defender and landing on another, and maybe Dimitri Flowers’ catch-turn-and-run touchdown at Ohio State, it was probably as unexpectedly athletic a play from an OU fullback as there’s been in the last decade.
Good thing for the No. 6-ranked Sooners that Hall got back into football.
“Well, I played basketball, baseball and football,” Hall said. “Football was done for like two years, but I was always playing basketball and baseball. That was when I was like 6, 7. It didn’t last very long.
“My dad made me play again and I ended up at tight end,” he said. “The tight end spot has really been my position all throughout my childhood. Then I got to high school and my coach really saw my athleticism. He believed in me. Shoutout to coach (Aaron) Brand for putting the shiftiness, the confidence that I have now, the route-running skills that I have now. He kinda forced that upon me and I’m grateful for that. High school is really where the turnover happened as far as the running back styles, the H-back styles, the slot receiver-type of game that I have. That’s pretty much where it came from.”
OU is 4-0 overall and 1-0 in Big 12 Conference play heading into this week’s 11 a.m. game at Kansas.
Hall is a 6-foot-2, 239-pound third-year sophomore. He played in 14 games last year, ran the ball four times for 21 yards and caught two passes for 36 yards. In four games so far this season, Hall one rush for minus-1 yard, and has six catches for 62 yards, with touchdown catches against Houston and South Dakota.
Like so many Sooner fullbacks before him — er, H-backs seems to be the preferred terminology — he’s big, strong, powerful, athletic, shifty and smart as heck.
“Jeremiah has done a nice job,” said coach Lincoln Riley. “He’s made a lot of the plays that have come to him. He showed some of his playmaking ability on that fourth-and-(11) play the other day. That was cool to see a young guy make such an important play in a big moment.
“He has a good, natural feel and overall knowledge to a lot of things we’re doing. There are a lot of things we can do with him. Similar to Dimitri Flowers, younger in his career, he mentally gives you the opportunity to do a bunch. He’s just going to physically get better and better. His best ball is ahead of him, but he’s certainly done some nice things for us.”
Back at Vance High School in Charlotte, N.C., Riley tried to recruit Hall to East Carolina, four hours away. That didn’t last long.
“I remember seeing him as a young player when I was there,” Riley said. “Knew pretty quickly he might be out of our league to recruit there if he kept progressing. I would say some of our connections to that area, we already knew when I went out to recruit him. Already knew his high school coach, guys in that area, had some pretty good feedback as to what kind of player he was. It was pretty obvious he fit exactly what we were looking for.”
Hall said he came to Oklahoma “because of Dimitri. I know I speak on his name a lot, but I have a lot of trust in what he did before. He knows that. We talk all the time about it. Like I said, he’s on the sideline. Whenever I make a play, he’s always like, ‘That looks familiar,’ or he’s always nitpicking on what I could have did better. This role, the H-back role, is definitely why I came here.”
Hall also knew about Riley and what he had done as offensive coordinator under Ruffin McNeill at East Carolina.
“I remember him beating (UNC) Chapel Hill, I remember the games him beating Appalachian State when him and Ruff were over there,” Hall said. “That wasn’t normal. I knew all those points were being put on the board. I like that style of offense because that’s where I came from. In high school we scored a lot of points. I saw Riley scoring a lot of points so it was only right.”
Growing up in North Carolina, he wasn’t steeped on the crimson and cream.
“I’m gonna be honest with you, no. I didn’t know anything about the history of Oklahoma,” he said. “I didn’t know about Dimitri. I wasn’t actively seeking Oklahoma football at the time. But I knew about coach Riley. That’s the only thing I knew. I knew he put up points and I knew his offense was effective. When he was at East Carolina, I heard about him.
“So when they offered me, it was only right that I look into it. I surely learned that this offense is amazing. One of the first games I watched was … I remember watching live Dimitri run against Iowa State. It was the game he had 100-something rushing yards. I was like, ‘Whoa. They have that much faith in that kid,’ and hopefully I can build up to that. When they offered me the scholarship, I was very excited to see what was on film and replicate that.”
The fact is, Riley has figured out a way to put his H-backs in space at big moments of the game, but more than that, he finds players with the kind of versatility that allows them to stay on the field. They can run block, they can pass block, they can carry the football or they can catch it. They can line up split out wide, in the slot, on the flank, on the line as a traditional tight end, in the backfield as a fullback or next to the quarterback as a multi-tool.
Keeping players on the field allows Riley to utilize plays that exploit personnel mismatches.
“Key word you said is ‘mismatches,’” Hall said. “That is the definition. There’s probably no other better way I can put it than mismatches.
“The versatility. I’m not actively looking for the credit. I will take it when it comes, but I came here to be versatile. And as you guys have seen, this last game, I was at the one receiver spot on the outside for a play or two. I was in the backfield. I was at the running back position. I love the versatility of the game. I love having multiple assignments as far as being able to execute all of that. That’s why I came here.”
Hall said from J.D. Runnels in the mid-2000s to Aaron Ripkowski in 2011-14 to Carson Meier last season, Oklahoma has a long-established “culture” at the fullback/tight end/H-back position, and it’s something everyone takes great pride in.
“It’s the culture set before me, the toughness, the athleticism, the ability to do it all,” Hall said. “That’s something that I think I need to carry on my shoulders, the guys that came before me — like I said, Trey Millard, J.D., Dimitri, Carson. I have an expectation to hold up and it’s only right that I make sure it’s my responsibility to show that culture on the field.”
That’s a long way from when he started.
“I wasn’t a good right guard,” he said with a laugh. “When you don’t want to be out there, things don’t typically go in your favor.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.