BOZEMAN — Southeast Missouri football coach Tom Matukewicz posed a question to better illustrate the spectacular rise of linebacker Zach Hall.
“You know how many Division I scholarship offers he had out of high school?” Matukewicz asked Wednesday during an interview with 406mtsports.com. “One. From the Redhawks.
“We spent probably like $26 on his recruiting process. Pretty good payoff, huh?”
That cost roughly amounted to a tank of gas for Matukewicz to make the drive from SEMO’s home in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to Louisville, Kentucky, where the 6-foot, 238-pound Hall was an all-state and all-district selection at Male High School.
Matukewicz became sold on Hall, and the senior All-American has rewarded the Redhawks with impeccable defensive play in the years that have followed — though Hall won’t accept any individual credit, which is something Matukewicz respects.
“I have a lot of good teammates around me, some good coaches that we have, a good scheme,” Hall said. “I watch a lot of film, but I really just have a lot of trust in my teammates to do their job so I can do mine.”
And he does it well.
As a junior last season, Hall made 168 total tackles (12 for loss) with two sacks, four interceptions and four forced fumbles, and became the first SEMO player to win the prestigious Buck Buchanan Award as the nation’s top defensive player. Hall was also named the Ohio Valley Conference defensive player of the year.
He edged Montana linebacker Dante Olson and Sam Houston State defensive end Derick Roberson for the Buchanan.
With Hall as its defensive star, Southeast Missouri won nine games and advanced to the second round of the playoffs in 2018.
“He’s an unbelievably humble kid, and he really believed (the Buchanan) was a team award,” Matukewicz said. “He’s really our first national player, and you kind of have to have a national player before you can have a national team. It was a great, inspiring year for him and our program.”
But this is a new year, and SEMO (1-0) is coming off a 44-26 victory over Southern Illinois last week. It will bring the No. 12 ranking into Bobcat Stadium on Saturday to face No. 13 Montana State (0-1) for a key nonconference matchup.
Hall said last year “added a lot of fuel and confidence to our team. We have a lot of players coming back.
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“This game will give us a good gauge of where we’re at. It’s still early in the season but it’s also nice to play some really good competition. I know that it’s going to be a great environment to step into.”
Hall’s ascent might be considered a surprise when you realize he played primarily as a tight end during his senior season at Male, which went 15-0 and won the Kentucky Class 6A state title that year.
But Hall, who had 19 tackles last week, has acclimated seamlessly to SEMO’s defense because of his smarts and football savvy.
“What separates him from others is his processor,” Matukewicz said. “On a clock he’s not going to wow you, even though he is athletic. But he can process information as quick as any linebacker I’ve coached.
“He gets the information, can process it and get there and meet the back before he hits the hole because he already knows where he’s going.”
The Bobcats lost 45-10 last week at FBS Texas Tech, not an unexpected outcome considering the lopsidedness of the matchup. But one of the things coach Jeff Choate and MSU hope to see this week is improved execution on offense, particularly on third down.
Needless to say, Hall is a player Montana State’s offense will be keying on.
“He’s a good player, for sure,” said Bobcats quarterback Casey Bauman, who threw for 120 yards and a touchdown last week. “We have our work cut out for us. He’s a ball hawk. He’s tough. It presents a challenge.”
“In the box he’s difficult to block,” Choate said. “He’s very aggressive, downhill, what I call a ‘hit-and-fit’ linebacker. But even more than that you can tell he’s the emotional leader of that group. The energy that he brings, the passion that he plays with, the physicality, the edge … he defines what that defense is about.”
Choate has described this game as crucial in terms of the Bobcats being able to put themselves on the map nationally and gain a measure of respect from those that make decisions on things like playoff positioning.
The same can be said for the Redhawks. Not that either team is looking too far ahead.
“You look at the matchups in the FCS, and the national spotlight is certainly going to be on this game,” Matukewicz said. “That’s fun. That’s what it should be all about.”
“We’re playing a national program. Either we are good enough to be in this conversation or we’re not,” Matukewicz added. “And if we’re not, what are we missing and can we get it solved? I appreciate being involved in a big game. We’re going to find out where our team’s at.”