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2018 NFL Draft: Hustle fueling P.J. Hall's under-the-radar climb

It's the time of year for reading scouting reports on draft-eligible players -- collections of achievements, stats and positives for some of the best football players in the world, seemingly all of whom had impressive production at the college level.

Take, for instance, this writeup by our own Lance Zierlein on Sam Houston State defensive lineman P.J. Hall:

" ... two-time first-team Associated Press FCS All-American ... 60 tackles, 19 for loss, six sacks, six pass breakups" as a senior ... "14 career blocked kicks ... Has a 700-pound squat to his name ..."

Wait, what?

Fourteen blocked kicks? Fourteen?

Every now and then, a number will jump out at you on a scouting report, and that is most certainly one of them.

"It's uncanny how he does it," Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler said by phone last week. "I don't know if you can teach it. I know no one here will take any credit for teaching it. He's just really, really good at it."

Hall is really good at a lot of things, and that's why he's climbed his way from a projected late-round pick to a player who might hear his name called on Day 2 of the 2018 NFL Draft. He was a constant disruption in the backfield for opposing offenses (finishing with a school-record 86.5 tackles for loss in his four-year career), and his pro-day workout last month (he ran the 40-yard dash in around 4.7 seconds and posted an astounding 38-inch vertical jump) confirmed he's as athletic as he looks on tape.

"Everybody knew I could move a little bit, but I don't think they expected me to be that explosive," Hall said. "There was kind of a 'Whoa' after I jumped."

We'll get back to Hall's athleticism and defensive production shortly. But first, about that blocked-kick total, which Keeler says is Hall's most impressive stat because it's a hustle stat, one that shows Hall is willing to put in the effort even after a long drive by the offense.

The FCS record for blocked kicks is 17, set by Leonard Smith, a former McNeese State defensive back who played nine seasons in the NFL with the Cardinals and Bills. Smith was a 5-foot-11, 190-pound safety who used his speed to put himself in position to block 10 field-goal tries, four extra-point attempts and three punts in his college career.

Hall weighs 308 pounds. He has to do it the old-fashioned way: find a seam, hit it quickly, take on half of a blocker, push him back, get high and put a hand in the right spot.

"Just trying my hardest to get back there and get a hand up and tip one or make them miss the field goal," Hall said. "It's really all about effort. That's the main thing."

Hall had a knack for doing just that, often at the perfect time. As a freshman, he got his hand on a field-goal attempt by Southeastern Louisiana midway through the fourth quarter. The block, his fourth of the season, set up the game-winning touchdown in Keeler's first playoff victory as coach of the Bearkats.

In total, Hall blocked six field-goal tries during his college career, to go along with six extra-point attempts and two punts. That last figure might be the most impressive, seeing as how it's usually a defensive back or offensive skill-position player who has the speed to get to a punter 15 yards off the ball. Rarely do 300-pounders find their way back there.

But Hall not only had the ability to do it, he had the desire. Keeler said Hall always wanted to be a part of all special-teams units, and sometimes they'd force him to come off the field for punt returns, just to give him a breather.

"When he gets between those lines, you get everything he's got. He'll go until he can't go no more," Keeler said. "He's a special talent. So quick, dynamic, physical and strong. I've seen him squat 750 with a pause and a smile on his face. Go down, squat, 'You want me to come up yet? OK, I'll come up now.' He does things you don't ever imagine you're going to see."

Hall arrived at Sam Houston in 2013 as a 235-pounder with enough athletic ability to be considered a tight end, along with fellow freshman Ragan Henderson. The coaches decided to keep Henderson at tight end while Hall redshirted, beefed up and got ready to play defense the following fall.

Right away, Hall had an impact at defensive end: 93 tackles (24 for loss), 12 sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception. Those stats made him a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award, which goes to the top FCS freshman. Hall's dominance continued the next two seasons, with 24 more sacks, 43.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and five blocked kicks.

Hall's do-it-all production and attitude landed him a sweet nickname from his teammates: P.J.J. Watt.

"It kind of stuck," Hall said. "I made it my Twitter handle and I haven't changed it."

Like Watt, the Houston Texans' star defensive lineman, Hall proved his versatility last year when Keeler and the Bearkats' coaching staff realized they needed help inside at defensive tackle.

" 'You're 275, you like to eat, I think you're better off playing inside for what we need for next year and your career,' " Keeler recalls telling Hall. "He took it on, got to 310 pounds and played there last year."

Hall actually played everywhere. That's what the Bearkats had to do at times, because offenses game-planned for Hall with double- and triple-teams, as well as by regularly running plays away from him.

Hall didn't mind the chase. In fact, one of Keeler's fondest memories of Hall's career came at the end of a 54-yard run in the third quarter of a blowout playoff loss to Jacksonville State in Hall's sophomore season. Speedy running back Troymaine Pope, who would be in the NFL with the Jets and Seahawks the next year, took off up the left sideline and raced deep into Bearkats territory. There was Hall -- originally lined up on the back side of the play, about 75 pounds heavier, with his team 31 points behind -- actually gaining ground on Pope and making the stop at the 10-yard line. (Check out the play at the 2:35 mark in this video.)

At halftime, Keeler had talked to his team about playing for pride. Hall heeded the advice and set an example.

"I remember the whole sideline gasping, and it was P.J. just being pissed off, like, 'I can't believe we're ending our season this way,' " Keeler recalled. "It was a gear I'd never seen anyone turn on before."

NFL scouts recently saw that gear during Sam Houston's pro day, which was extremely important for Hall, because he was snubbed by the NFL Scouting Combine.

Hall's 40-yard dash was timed as quickly as 4.67 seconds by one scout. Even at the "official" number of 4.76 seconds, Hall would've been the fastest defensive lineman over 300 pounds at the combine, and the fifth-fastest D-lineman overall. He added 36 reps on the bench, which frustrated him because the bar hit the bench on one of his last reps and threw off his rhythm, and a 9-8 broad jump. His 38-inch, gasp-inducing vertical jump would've been the second-best among defensive linemen at the combine.

The knock on Hall is going to be that he's just over 6 feet and doesn't have the long arms NFL evaluators like to see from their defensive linemen. They'll also have questions about his level of competition in the Southland Conference.

But what Hall lacks in size (granted, he's not exactly tiny) he makes up for with quickness, effort and leverage. Plus, when he stepped up in competition at the East-West Shrine game in January, Hall at times dominated practices and in the game, as well. He had a sack and set up another one for a teammate with a pressure.

It's no wonder Hall was named a captain for the team this past season, an honor Keeler allowed even though Hall served a two-game suspension for an academic violation. Hall fell behind in classes while pledging a fraternity and got himself back on track to graduate. It was the only hint of any trouble he'd given the coaching staff in his college career, so Keeler made an exception to his usual rule of making sure all captains don't miss any practice or playing time because of academic or conduct issues.

"Don't you know, he knocks on my door, shuts it and says, 'I know it was out of your comfort zone to allow me to be captain, but it's one of the great honors of my life, and I'm so appreciative you allowed that,' " Keeler recalled.

"It's amazing I had an All-American-level player for four years. It doesn't happen that way. Usually guys grow into it over the course of their career. Not P.J. He was a dude from the first game he played."

Follow Mike Garafolo on Twitter @MikeGarafolo.

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