Emanuel Hall’s first touchdown of the season came by accident.
As quarterback Drew Lock looked for Hall halfway through the first quarter of Missouri’s season opener against Tennessee-Martin, the receiver was covered.
Thinking on his feet, Hall found a hole, cut right and split a pair of defensive backs. He caught a 34-yard touchdown a few seconds later. The player NFL evaluators thought only knew the go route had just improvised mid-play and scored off a post.
The Skyhawks put Hall, who established himself as a deep threat last season, in one-on-one coverage. He took it personally.
Motivation hasn’t been hard for Hall to come by. His relatives felt he was misused in high school football, which led to him being under recruited. He needed a player dismissal to see the field at Missouri.
Tigers coach Barry Odom said no player on his roster has developed into a total player more than Hall, and the receiver could flirt with All-America honors. Hall enters Saturday’s game at Purdue second in the nation in receiving yards, and he has scored three touchdowns. He’s quickly emerged as Lock’s favorite target.
While known at Missouri as a deep threat, Hall’s high school highlights show a much different player. At Centennial High School in Franklin, Tenn., poor quarterback play led to most of Hall’s action coming at the line of scrimmage. Hall, who runs a 4.3 second 40-yard dash, said he was used more like a running back than a receiver.
“Junior and senior year it was all, ‘We need to get the ball in his hands and hopefully we can figure it out,’ ” said Chaz Hawkins, Hall’s older brother.
Hall still showed enough on film to pick up scholarship offers, but his situation changed right before his junior year of high school. The 6-foot-3 wideout broke his right ankle in two places and had to have a plate inserted.
Before that, Hall was hearing from the likes of South Carolina, Mississippi State and Alabama, but all lost interest after the injury.
Tennessee, the state’s flagship school, was looking at Hall but never offered. Hometown Vanderbilt was all over Hall under former coach James Franklin, but stopped calling when Franklin became Penn State’s coach.
“He was recruited,” said Randy Fuller, a former NFL player and Hall’s personal coach since high school. “But I think he could have been recruited a lot more.”
While other schools passed, Missouri stuck with Hall throughout his injury. He liked Missouri’s offense under Gary Pinkel and appreciated how a program that won so much never got its due.
“That’s one of the reasons I chose this school,” Hall said. “A lot of people just don’t respect this school. Everybody on this team comes off with a chip on their shoulder.”
Hall played as a true freshman in 2015 but barely saw the field his first two seasons at Missouri.
He also barely played in Missouri’s first four games of 2017 and was only on the field for one snap in the Tigers’ 35-3 loss to Purdue before going to the locker room because of a shoulder injury.
It wasn’t until Dimetrios Mason was kicked off the team Oct. 1 that Hall got his chance.
During Missouri’s last eight games, Hall caught 28 passes for 713 yards and eight touchdowns. Missouri went 6-2 in that span and Hall’s 24.8 yards-per-catch led the Southeastern Conference and was second in the nation.
But even while he was making plays, Hall’s old habits emerged.
Hall’s lack of playing time his first two seasons tested him mentally, which sometimes affected his effort in practice. If a play was called where he wasn’t getting the ball, he might slack on his route.
“Two years ago if you asked (Emanuel) to block, I’d be nervous — we’d all be nervous — because we don’t know if he’s going to do it,” senior offensive lineman Kevin Pendleton said.
Hall’s wake-up call came against Vanderbilt in November. Playing in his hometown with relatives and friends in the stands, Hall went catchless in Missouri’s 45-17 win and dropped a number of passes that would have been touchdowns and would have put him over 1,000 yards receiving on the year.
He left Nashville realizing his practice habits were translating into games. That couldn’t continue.
“That week I didn’t prepare the way I should have and paid the price for it,” he said. “That game was a big learning curve for me.”
At the end of the season, Hall submitted his name to the NFL draft advisory board. It told him to stay in school and to learn more routes than a simple go.
With the graduation of J’Mon Moore, Hall entered the spring as the leader of the receivers room. Those around him said he matured quickly and started to realize his full potential.
“Some of the faults I had, I don’t want them to have,” Hall said of his younger teammates.
New offensive coordinator Derek Dooley’s offense uses Hall all over the field. In Saturday’s 40-13 win against Wyoming, he had 171 receiving yards and a touchdown on an array of short routes.
“The myth that I can’t run routes is kind of gone,” Hall said Saturday. “I’m glad they called those plays, so I can show them.”
Hall is glad he didn’t have immediate success at Missouri. He said a strong start to his college career could have made him content, and he wouldn’t have been motivated by his critics.
“A lot of it is him realizing what he could be and it’s him taking a more serious tone to his work,” his brother said. “Once that started it pervaded the rest of his life.”