Consider Derek Hall’s position at this time last year.
In anticipation of the spring practice sessions, Greg Roman, the associate head coach at the time, names Hall and two younger players–Kevin Danser and Tyler Mabry–as the main candidates to replace Chris Marinelli at right offensive tackle. A rising redshirt senior and unknown commodity, Hall had, at this point, played in just two contests in his first four years on the Farm.
Fast forward to the summer. Hall’s main competition is now James McGillicuddy, a sixth-year senior with 22 games of experience under his belt. Both had been converted from the defensive line earlier in their Stanford careers, but McGillicuddy made the switch in January of 2007, whereas Hall made the change over a year later. McGillicuddy had also played on the offensive line in high school, while Hall’s two-way role at that level was at tight end. A presumptive favorite, Hall is not.
The battle, perhaps the fiercest of the Cardinal’s 2010 camp, goes down to the wire, but Hall eventually pulls ahead in the week before the opener against Sacramento State.
“At first, I was a deer in the headlights,” he said. “I was so amped up to finally play. You had to get those first game jitters out of the way. After that, I got tremendously more confident.”
From September on, it’s a whirlwind: Hall starts all 13 games at right tackle and fits seamlessly into a line that returned four starters. The unit, which also heavily features McGillicuddy as an extra tackle, wins wide acclaim en route to Stanford’s 12-1 season. Hall is named honorable mention All-Pac-10.
Now, one year removed from being known only to the most intense of the Stanford diehards, Hall is a legitimate NFL Draft prospect–a raw but effectual lineman who made the most of his limited opportunity.
Where does that leave him? Hall said that people see him as high as a third-rounder or as low as undrafted, but that he isn’t “trying to predict it, because it’s so hard to predict.” Wes Bunting, the Director of College Scouting for the National Football Post, sees him as a probable late-round selection or, at worst, a priority undrafted free agent.
“My confidence in myself is good,” Hall said. “It doesn’t matter where I get taken.”
Bunting finds Hall to be an intriguing prospect–better, he thinks, than Marinelli and Matt Kopa, two of the last Cardinal tackles to test the NFL waters. In separate interviews, both Bunting and Hall pointed to skills gained as a defensive lineman that could be beneficial to Hall’s career as an offensive tackle.
“On the defensive line, it’s all about attacking and playing with low leverage,” Hall said. “I think that helped me run-block better. I was firing off like a defensive lineman so I could get the most push. I knew what they were trying to do.”
“You can see it as a run blocker, he can create a lot of leverage,” he said. “At 303 pounds, he’s not overly strong, but his ability to generate leverage is a big plus.”
That means, for example, that Hall is not pigeonholed into any one type of scheme.
“He could play in a zone or power, to be honest. His body type screams zone. But when you see him play with leverage, you know he can do power,” Bunting said. “That’s good, because he’ll be on a few more teams’ draft boards.”
Hall recognized that he still has work to do in pass protection; Bunting pointed to “overextended footwork” as one of Hall’s major liabilities, but also said that his athleticism is good enough that he could improve with more practice.
“I’ve been told that scouts say that they like me but that I need to improve my pass blocking, because the defensive ends are freaks in the NFL,” Hall said. “I still need to continue to get better. I’m still learning.”
To his credit, Hall seems to be the person most cognizant of his situation. He is not fooling himself: his technique–essential to pass blocking–is the major focus of his current workouts. He’s also practicing as a guard to look more attractive to NFL clubs.
“To make a team, because the rosters are so much smaller in the NFL, you have to be versatile,” he said.
Since Stanford’s season ended in January, Hall has been working to beat the learning curve. He’s training at the Athletes’ Performance Institute in Carson, just south of Los Angeles, where he spends his days trying to improve his strength, speed and technical skills. His meals are specifically designed to maximize performance. He does drills against some of the best defensive linemen in the draft, including Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers, who many see as the probable No. 1 overall selection.
“It gives you a good gauge of what you need to work on and where you’re at. Doing it just gives you more confidence, because you’re practicing against these highly skilled people. When you look at the NFL from the outside, you have these ideas of grandeur. It’s good to get used to playing people at that skill level,” Hall said.
Eventually, the benefits of these drills and workout regimens have to reach the eyes of scouts and coaches, and Hall, unlike many other candidates, will only have one major forum to showcase his talent. While other prospects were invited to postseason all-star games and the scouting combine, Hall was left out. His lone chance to perform in front of a legion of NFL personnel will be Stanford’s Pro Day on March 17.
“I’m a little disadvantaged because not going to the Combine means they know less about me. I haven’t done an interview yet,” he said. “Even at Pro Day, I won’t be evaluated as closely as if I went to the combine, where they do a ridiculous amount of tests and interviews. At Pro Day they’re working you out and taking you through drills, not doing actual interviews with you.”
Bunting stressed the importance of Hall’s Pro Day performance.
“There will be more weight on his Pro Day. If he doesn’t perform well, he won’t get the chance to make up for it,” he said. “He needs to have long arms, which is key at the offensive tackle position. He has to run in that 5.3 range [in the 40-yard dash]. He has to show that he can put on some weight. He has a good frame, but he should be closer to 310.”
Ultimately, Hall knows how he’s viewed and where he sits. His attention is not on the past but on what he can do in the next two months to improve his draft stock. A good Pro Day performance, for instance, could prompt separate visits from teams, or invitations to their training facilities, where Hall and coaches can get better acquainted. It has taken numerous unpredictable turns to get him to this point, but Hall stands on the precipice of a professional career. To that end, his focus and drive are honed.
“I just have to worry about what I can control,” he said. “I’m going to work my hardest.”