Hodges Coming on Strong at OLB

Manning a new 'backer position this year, the senior is doing a little bit of everything on defense for the Nittany Lions.

While we have likely seen the last of Penn State outside linebacker Gerald Hodges as a kick returner, he seems to show up just about everywhere else.

Moved this year to the strong side and playing under a new defensive coordinator (Ted Roof), Hodges has been given the freedom to roam, and he has taken full advantage. Sometimes he's in coverage. Sometimes he blitzes. Frequently he shows up in the run game.

He has 30 tackles through the Nittany Lions' first four games, the 10th-highest total in the Big Ten, and figures to again be a key figure Saturday, when PSU (2-2) opens conference play at Illinois (2-2).

He said his new position required him to make “a big adjustment.” But it is one he appears to have made.

And now, he said during a conference call with reporters earlier this week, “I like it a lot. It gives me more flexibility to roam around. … It allows me to disguise certain defenses, certain coverages. Teams don't know whether I'm coming (on a blitz) or not. It allows me to create plays for my teammates and myself.”

He and the other outside 'backer, Michael Mauti, have developed what Hodges called “a natural competition” on the field -- a “competition to play a little bit better and help the team out.” If one makes a play, the other wants to do the same.

The result is that Mauti has 42 tackles, second-most in the Big Ten. And while many of the defense's numbers are not impressive -- Penn State is ninth in the conference in total defense (355.5 yards per game), ninth against the run (143.8) and eighth against the pass (211.8) -- the silver lining is that the defenders have allowed the third-fewest points (15.2). And they have yet to allow a first-half touchdown this season.

If Hodges' versatility has helped them to do that, let the record show that his role is much more well-defined than it was in the season opener against Ohio, when new coach Bill O'Brien employed him as a return man on kickoffs and punts -- with disastrous results. Hodges fumbled a second-quarter punt deep in his own territory, leading to a gimme field goal for the Bobcats, who went on to a 24-14 victory.

He hasn't returned kicks since.

“That wasn't my decision (to be used in that role); it was the coaches' decision,” he said. “But I don't think I'll be doing that anymore.”

Everything else is in play. He particularly likes coverage; whenever a receiver comes over the middle, he said, “My eyes light up.” But he doesn't appear to have many weak spots, something the pro scouts have probably noticed by now.

And they're around all the time; O'Brien lets them come to practice whenever they want. But Hodges claims that it has no impact on him.

“You shouldn't need the scouts to practice,” Hodges said. “It's not about the scouts being there, watching. You don't know if they're watching you or not. I'm out there, and I'm out there to practice. I'm there to work on what I need to work on for each week's game.”

This week he is readying himself for an Illinois offense that has had its struggles. The Fighting Illini are ninth in the Big Ten in passing offense (201.0), 10th in rushing offense (144.8) and 11th overall (345.8). They alternate two quarterbacks -- Ryan O'Toole is the superior passer, while Nathan Scheelhaase is the better runner -- and have seen freshman running back Josh Ferguson emerge as a dual threat.

Ferguson leads the Illini in rushing (166 yards, 5.2 a pop) and is third in receiving (14-106). Their leading receiver is Ryan Lankford (16-243, 4 TDs), son of former Penn State defensive back Paul Lankford.

“We've just got to get mentally and physically prepared for a nice battle,” Hodges said.

A great deal has changed since these two teams met last Oct. 29. The Lions won that one in the snow, 10-7, on a late touchdown by Silas Redd (remember him?). And it was a victory that remained in doubt until a last-second Illini field goal attempt glanced off the right upright.

That was Joe Paterno's 409th victory. It was also his last. It has also since been vacated, by order of the NCAA.

The Lions are in the process of starting over. Hodges, too. And in his case, at least, that hasn't been all bad -- with one notable exception.

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