Defenses figure out too late that Oklahoma's H-backs are 'living in their heads rent free'

Sometimes it might be hard for Jeremiah Hall to keep a straight face ... because he knows what's coming up
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Jeremiah Hall

Jeremiah Hall

On the rare occasion when defenses key in on Oklahoma’s H-back, Jeremiah Hall puts on his best poker face.

If he starts smiling too much before the ball is snapped, they’ll know.

“Man, it’s a great time,” Hall said, “just because you know … you are living in their heads rent-free.”

To the left is dynamic freshman Marvin Mims. In the slot is sure-handed Drake Stoops. On the other side is speedy Theo Wease. T.J. Pledger is in the backfield.

What about that big guy right there? Don’t worry. He won’t get the ball. … Or maybe he will. Or maybe he’s the key blocker? Someone needs to follow him … who’s got the H-back?

“I think the H-back position and the way coach (Lincoln) Riley plays it is very unique,” said offensive tackle Erik Swenson. “… I feel like they’re doing something different every single week.”

It’s actually a pivotal position — literally — in Riley’s offense. So many of the plays he calls are either run directly behind or off of blocks from the H-back. But those blocks can come from virtually any position on the field: fullback, shotgun power, tight end, wing, slot receiver, or out wide.

Hall’s versatility — just like OU H-backs before him, such as Dimitri Flowers or Trey Millard — means he can literally do it all, and he can do it from anywhere on the field. Same with sophomore Austin Stogner, who looks more like a traditional tight end at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds but is learning Riley’s sneaky ways as an interchangeable piece with Hall.

Brayden Willis (6-3, 236) fits that bill, too, although he’s missed four of the Sooners’ five games so far this season. In Willis’ absence, true freshman Mikey Henderson (6-2, 234) has gotten his turn at the position.

“I think we’re all gelling pretty well together as an H-back group,” Hall said.

At 6-2, 253 pounds, Hall looks like the prototype fullback. But in Riley’s offense, he’s so much more.

Through five games, Hall has 10 catches for 113 yards and has scored three touchdowns. His presence in short-yardage or goal-line situations is every bit as valuable as a speedy wideout or jitterbug running back.

On first down, Hall is a fullback in the backfield and delivers a punishing lead block on the middle linebacker in front of Pledger. On second down, Hall lines up in the slot on and thunders into a defensive end with a down block as Pledger cuts right behind him. Then, on third down and short, Hall lines up on the wing. Just when defenses think he’s coming to deliver more pain as an in-line blocker, Hall nimbly shifts and slips past his defender and into the end zone for a wide-open touchdown catch.

Before a given play, Hall might hear the defense call out his number. Maybe this time the linebacker has picked up a tendency. Maybe this time he’s guessed right.

Nope, wrong again, and Hall almost lets slip a smile before the ball is snapped.

“They are consciously thinking about you,” Hall said. “As a competitor, that’s just something that you love simply because, No. 1, you are important enough to feel like you have an impact and, No. 2, you know what’s about to happen next. So it’s definitely a good feeling.”

In quarterback Spencer Rattler’s case, it’s like thinking all you need is a screwdriver, a wrench and a hammer — and then someone hands you a multitool.

“Jeremiah, specifically, he can do it all,” Rattler said. “He’s a big guy who knows how to get open. Just his feel for the game, his feel for the routes we have him on and his blocking assignments. And when he runs the ball, he’s just got a great feel for it.

“So, being the quarterback, that makes your job easier. Because the defense might be looking for that deep shot with a fast guy down the field and they might forget you got a H-back sliding out. So, just having him and a couple other guys that can do the same stuff helps a lot on our offense.”

As Rattler lines up before the snap and begins to survey the defense, he might hear the middle linebacker shouting something about Hall or Stogner or Willis or Henderson.

They’re almost always wrong. The way Riley deploys his H-backs, confusion reigns.

“Yeah, a lot of the time,” Rattler said. “We’ve got a lot of different formations with them. We just try to use them as much as we can.”

Swenson said in practice, the H-backs might show up to work with the offensive line, “how to work a new block,” and then a few minutes later they’re “going out for a pass.”

“They’re just such versatile players,” he said. “You know, I see why the defense is always so confused, because right when you think you may have a tendency of what they’re doing, they’re doing the exact opposite thing now.

“And the way that coach Riley has worked that into the offense has just been a big help for us on the o-line with extra blockers or for Spencer with an extra receiver downfield.”

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