ATHENS — Franklin Pridgen, the head football coach at Wesleyan School, was frustrated in the fall of 2010 by his inability to persuade a college to offer a scholarship to his hard-hitting senior linebacker.
“We did everything we could, putting out DVDs and writing letters and all these things,” Pridgen recalled. “I even said to our assistant coaches, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ Because even schools like Georgia Southern and Jacksonville State were, like, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ It really drove me crazy. … It was maddening to me and to him.”
Merritt Hall, the linebacker no one would offer a scholarship, wound up enrolling at Georgia last year and walking on to the football team at a new position, fullback. A year later, he is No. 1 on the Bulldogs’ fullback depth chart, a presumptive starter for the Sept. 1 opener against Buffalo unless something changes in the next couple of weeks. And, oh yes, coach Mark Richt put him on scholarship last weekend.
“It has happened kind of fast, hasn’t it?” Hall said.
At Wesleyan, Pridgen understood that Hall’s size (5-foot-11, 195 pounds at the time) and 40-yard dash time (“it didn’t blow anybody away,” Pridgen said) were not exactly selling points with recruiters.
“But what I always found frustrating is that none of that matters, in my opinion,” Pridgen said. “What matters is, what does a kid do when he straps on the pads and the lights come on on Friday night?’”
When the lights came on for Wesleyan — a private school in Peachtree Corners — from the 2008 through 2010 seasons, Hall starred.
He made all-Gwinnett County and all-state teams. He was named the state Class A defensive player of the year as a junior. He helped the Wolves win the Class A state championship as a sophomore and reach the state semifinals as a senior.
Hall played mostly defense, but Pridgen revels in telling the story of a 2010 game at Elbert County in which Wesleyan tailback Kyle Karempelis rolled an ankle and Hall filled in at a position he had not practiced and gained 50 yards on seven carries on a late drive to set up a game-winning field goal.
Through it all, recruiters yawned.
“I got letters from, like, Furman, Georgia Southern, Jacksonville State, Air Force. I got one letter from Wake Forest. But I never got any scholarship offers,” Hall said.
“It was frustrating for him,” said David Andrews, Hall’s teammate at Wesleyan and now Georgia’s starting center.
The idea of walking on at Georgia was broached by Hall’s trainer during his senior year in high school. Intrigued, Hall phoned Stacy Searels, then a UGA assistant coach, who promised that the Georgia staff would be back in touch. Pridgen then sent film of the Elbert County game to UGA offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and asked him to focus on Hall’s seven carries.
Soon came word from Bobo that Hall, as a fullback, could join his Wesleyan teammate Karempelis as a preferred walk-on in Athens.
A preferred walk-on, basically, is a walk-on with an invitation. While a regular walk-on might be turned away, a preferred walk-on is promised a chance to practice as a freshman.
Hall did so last season as a member of the scout team, going largely unnoticed.
“I had thoughts that ‘Gosh, I don’t even know if these coaches know who I am,’” he said.
Then, in spring practice, he got their attention. Asked how he did it, Hall said: “It obviously wasn’t my speed or my athletic ability, I don’t think. I think it was more just going full speed and just hitting people because that’s a big part of playing fullback.”
By the end of the spring, Hall was No. 1 on the fullback depth chart. Last week, Bobo reiterated that Hall remains in that spot at least for now, ahead of senior Richard Samuel (who splits time between fullback and tailback), junior Zander Ogletree and freshman Quayvon Hicks. Hall said he’s up to 233 pounds.
“Merritt’s not afraid of anyone,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “I don’t care who it is. I don’t care if it’s Cornelius [Washington], Jarvis [Jones], Tree [Alec Ogletree]. He’s not afraid to meet them in the hole and take them on. He’s done a great job of creating room for our running backs and knowing what to do. I really haven’t heard any coach yell at him for a missed assignment this whole [preseason].”
None of that surprises Andrews, Hall’s friend and teammate since seventh grade.
“I knew how good he was,” Andrews said. “He might not have all of the accolades; he’s not 6-3, 260 pounds. But Merritt has got something you can’t teach. Merritt has got heart. He loves this game more than anything, and that’s what really makes a football player.”
– Tim Tucker, AJC