Underappreciated, Undeterred

Senior Shay Hodge was never the flashiest of receivers.

His critics often claimed a lack of speed, and Hodge was unfairly compared to his former teammate and now-Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Wallace. Further, at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, he didn't possess imposing size.

But all nitpicking aside, in terms of sheer production, no receiver in Ole Miss history was better.

"Shay's had a great year for us, an outstanding year," said offensive coordinator Kent Austin, before his team exited Dallas with a 21-7 victory over No. 21 Oklahoma State.

"The thing that Shay did this year is he really stepped it up and replaced some of the production we lost with Mike Wallace going to the NFL. Everybody knew, especially when we moved Dexter back to tailback full time, that they had to stop Shay in our passing game."

In a brilliant career, Hodge never really received his due. After logging seven receptions and 112 receiving yards Saturday, he stands alone as Ole Miss' career receiving yards leader with 2,646. The former record holder, Chris Collins, had 2,621 from 2000 to 2003.

As he proved in 13 games as a senior, Hodge was clearly the No. 1 option for Ole Miss in the passing game. Though outshined by the heroics of Dexter McCluster, he manned his position masterfully. With a basketball background and the most reliable of hands, he always found a way to get open and make even the toughest of catches when needed the most.

"That was one of my biggest strengths, because I wasn't necessarily fast and couldn't outrun everybody, so my basketball background helped me to adjust, jump up and catch it instead of trying to outrun it," Hodge said. "That part of it was easy. The part I had to work on was my speed and trying to get behind coverage and adjust to a ball."

"His basketball background has been a huge benefit for him," added Austin. "He understands body control, he understands leverage, and he knows how to protect the ball when it's in the air. He knows when to come back downhill to cut DB's off from the football."

But don't call him a possession receiver.

"What do you think (Arizona Cardinals' wide receiver Larry) Fitzgerald is, a possession receiver or complete? What did he run, a 4.5 or 4.6? That's what I say - if you can just run and just get behind somebody, you don't have to out run them, just out jump them," said Hodge.

He's faster than the general perception, an 86-yard catch in a 31-30 victory over Florida in 2008 a prime example. This season, Hodge notched five receiving games of 100 yards or more, putting him in first place on the Rebels' single-season chart.

"When I came in, I wasn't ever the fastest dude," he said. "But since then, there's always been a knock on me. I'm the kind of guy to prove people wrong. My determination to do better than what everybody says.

"I'm probably the third or fourth fastest dude on the team. Every issue that's supposed to be my weakness I try to make my strength and make it better. As far as production for my career, I think every year I've gotten better and every year I try to make sure no one stepped in front of me to take my spot or when I was trying to gain a spot when I was younger and playing as a freshman."

When looking to 2010, it's hard enough to imagine life without the presence of McCluster. Add the loss of arguably the best wide receiver in Ole Miss history, and offensive production becomes pure conjecture.

Hodge has always been vastly underappreciated, though he's appeared in all 50 games over a four-year career. For some perspective, the Morton native finished the season with 70 catches for 1,135 yards and eight touchdowns. All led the team, while McCluster and fellow running back Brandon Bolden finished second and third, respectively, in receptions.

Following the Cotton Bowl, Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt pulled wideouts Markeith Summers, Lionel Breaux and Patrick Patterson aside. The trio will be relied upon to replace Hodge's production, though none reached the 20-catch plateau this season.

For Nutt, the message was simple.

"I said, ‘you three, y'all got to go. You¹ve got to go now," Nutt said Monday in his postseason press conference. "You can't be in the middle of the line. You've got to be in the front. Not a lazy step. You've got to be the strongest and fastest you've ever been. Your work ethic has to go to another level. You've got to live with a ball under your arm and in your hands. And you've got to find a quarterback and be real good friends with him. You've got to really go to work.

"And they can do it too. Markeith's made some big plays. Lionel's made some big plays, but he's been inconsistent. Patrick has been inconsistent, but he's going to be OK. There's some things he has to do more consistently on and off the field. But I can see why he was rated so high in high school. It's easy to see."

When NFL scouts view Hodge's body of work, they'll be hard-pressed to find a better receiver in the SEC this season.

Sure, such names as Alabama's Julio Jones and Georgia's A.J. Green steal the headlines. But neither came close to the totals of Hodge for the year, even with a better supporting cast at the position.

"I get overlooked sometimes," said Hodge, "but I think the 1,000 yards speaks for itself. Some people can say it's not against the SEC, like I didn't have a whole bunch of yards against SEC schools like I've seen on some blogs.

"But 1,000 yards speaks for itself."

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