On the other side of the line was OU head coach Bob Stoops with some news for the 6-foot, 193-pound walk-on defensive back.
“I was expecting him to be yelling at me for something I did or something like that,” Paulsen admitted.
Instead, Stoops gave him the words every player wants to hear, no matter when they hear it.
“He just called me out of the blue and he was like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna give you a scholarship,’” Paulsen said.
Paulsen couldn’t contain himself.
He immediately had to call his father, Mark, a longtime strength and conditioning coordinator at the University of New Mexico.
“I was like, ‘Dad, he gave me a scholarship,’” Paulsen recalled. “And he was whooping and just yelling and stuff. It was crazy. So, it was fun.”
Paulsen arrived on campus as a walk-on back before the 2010 season after transferring from UNM to OU for a couple of reasons.
One of those was his sister, Stina.
At the time Paulsen worked as a walk-on for the Lobos, Stina had a ballet scholarship at OU.
So, the two could reunite.
He also salivated at the opportunity to play major Division I football for a program like the Sooners.
“To be with my sister and part of this tradition at Oklahoma,” Paulsen said.
So, he thought, what the heck? Why not give it a try?
And so he did.
Interestingly enough, the two actually traded places when he made the move.
Once Jesse came to OU, Stina ended up transferring back to New Mexico and is now a swimmer.
“It kinda didn’t work out that way,” Paulsen lightheartedly said.
But it has worked out for him on the football field.
After serving as a member of the special teams squad on kickoff, punt and punt return teams for a couple years--Paulsen broke his foot last year which set him back some--he found his way on the two-deep coming into the season.
Then, the other night Paulsen was thrown into the fire after starting free safety Tony Jefferson sprained his ankle during first half action against Florida A&M.
“I was just like watching because the defense went out, I saw him get hurt, and he stayed in there,” Paulsen remembered. “He was tough. He stayed in there for a little bit and then he was like, ‘C’mon Jesse. Get in there.’ So, I went in there for one play and then we punted and I was just checking on him to see if he was fine.”
He got some ice on his ankle, and the training staff put an air cast on it.
At that point, OU’s starter had some words for his former walk-on backup.
“‘You’re in brother,’” Paulsen said Jefferson told him.
So, Paulsen took the reins at free safety the rest of the way.
“I mean, it was definitely all crazy,” said Paulsen, who admitted he was mentally exhausted after serving on the kickoff and punt return teams in addition to that role. “I had some butterflies. I was hoping that Tony was OK and he’s good. I wasn’t really prepared to be, get in that situation because I wasn’t expecting him to get hurt, but I just went in there, I just tried to calm my heart down and do the best I could and I did OK.”
His only blemish, according to the coaching staff and himself, was the 75-yard touchdown pass where he didn’t have deep safety coverage over the top to help out cornerback Demontre Hurst, who was beaten by his man on the play.
“Was where he was supposed to be really all night but the one play,” Stoops said. “And I’m not throwing him under the bus. He understands, and it’s just he’ll learn from it and get better.”
Paulsen said it was just miscommunication.
The Sooners had drawn a blitz, and he rotated the wrong way instead of having deep support for Hurst.
Still, his teammate took the hit for him.
“Me being a veteran, I have to be better at communicating with him,” Hurst said. “It was his first time playing on defense in a big game like that. He was probably a little nervous, but I think the jitters are out now.”
And he’s got his first major live action out of the way.
“Yeah, it was definitely a surprise and I just had to calm myself down and just you gotta know that you’re gonna get in there if someone goes down during practice,” Paulsen said. “I mean, I gotta be more prepared the next time mentally just in case anything happens.”
By all accounts, Jefferson should be back for the Kansas State game.
But if not, that means more responsibility for the man who has traveled an interesting path to become the latest Sooner walk-on-to-scholarship sensation and is undoubtedly thankful for it.
“I’ve been blessed in everything I’ve done,” said the guy who used to go against quarterback Landry Jones in 7-on-7 back during high school and get overlooked. “My parents, my friends and everything and just God getting me here and I mean, just coming from New Mexico, if I could tell anybody [anything it’d be], ‘Just don’t stop trying.’ I mean, we got guys that can play anywhere back home that they just kinda stop and quit. And they have the ability to go anywhere.”
He’s living proof of that and in the process, made it a little bit easier on himself.
“I didn’t have to take any more student loans out, so I’m only a couple thousand dollars in debt, so that’s good,” Paulsen joked. “But other than that, I get to eat some more meals and stuff and get some more entertainment.”
And perhaps some more time on the field as a more full-time member of this team.
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