Hodge's confidence grows

True freshman linebacker is healthy and finishing up a productive year on the scout team

Normally, the University of Wisconsin football team's travel roster does not have room for players like Elijah Hodge, who is redshirting and has spent most of his time this season on the scout team.

The Badgers' trek to the Capital One Bowl is different, with redshirts and scout teamers alike making the journey to Orlando.

For Hodge, a native of Lauderhill, Fla., it is an opportunity to be closer to home than he has been in months.

Why, then, is Hodge telling his family not to come watch Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl? Because he is not the only Hodge whose team is playing a bowl game Jan. 2 in Florida. Elijah's older brother Abdul will play his final game of an excellent career with Iowa that day, in the Outback Bowl.

"It's going to be kind of hard being that Iowa plays the same day. My family and friends will have to kind of split," Elijah Hodge said. "My mom will probably go watch my brother's game and I have a lot of friends and coaches coming to my game. I advise them to go see his game being that it's his last game."

Hodge, who has not been home since August, said he is not disappointed that his family will not be able to see him on the sidelines at the Capital One Bowl. Rather, the situation is tough on him in that he will not be able to see his brother's last collegiate game. However, after Iowa's game concludes, Abdul is going to make the 90-minute drive to Orlando to pick up his brother following the Capital One Bowl, which kicks off two hours after the Outback event. Lauderhill is about 200 miles south of Orlando.

"So we'll drive home together," Hodge said. He will have two weeks at home before returning to Madison Jan. 16.

The Florida bowl game juxtaposition is not lost on Hodge's family. The talk back home is of Abdul "finishing on a good note and me just beginning; beginning to a long career," Elijah said.

Elijah Hodge has spent this redshirt season getting healthy and working on the scout team.

"It was beneficial, real beneficial," he said. "My reads are coming faster now. I'm more confident on the field. I feel like I gained some of the players' trust, as far as like talking and communicating on the field."

When he could participate fully, Hodge was one of Wisconsin's most impressive freshmen in fall training camp. But a chronic groin problem—an injury that had affected him since his freshman year in high school—limited his mobility and effectively guaranteed a redshirt year. However, thanks to a special post-practice stretching and strengthening regimen developed by Wisconsin's strength and conditioning staff, Hodge has been able to build flexibility and lower body strength. He now feels like he is running as well as he ever has.

"I'm going sideline to sideline now," Hodge said. "It shows out there."

Hodge is one of several linebackers from the class of 2005 who will compete for serious playing time in 2006, including spots in the starting lineup. The Badgers will lose senior outside linebackers LaMarr Watkins and Dontez Sanders, leaving Mark Zalewski as the only returning starter. Zalewski played strongside last season and middle this season, and could end up at either spot next year.

Hodge has been a middle linebacker since day one in Madison. He spent much of fall camp taking reps with the second team, but has been on the scout team since it was determined that he would redshirt. During bowl practices, though, Hodge has been able to work up with the depth, while also serving on the scout team. The opportunity to depart from the scouts allows Hodge to show the coaching staff what he can do.

"The coaches and also the players," he said. "Showing that they're not the only ones getting better. We're down there on the scout team, working, getting better going against the ones. So everybody's getting better and it's better for the team."

Does Hodge feel he has to prove himself?

"I'm not saying it as in proving myself," he explained. "I'm saying prove to myself. Because when I came out in camp I had an all right camp, but I knew could do better and a lot of things was holding me back as far as like my flexibility and my groin.

"Right now all of those things are behind me and I'm just 100 percent just out there, just feel comfortable. And it's more of prove to myself then prove to the team."

Hodge is making an impression with his hard-hitting style. On the second day of bowl practices, in a session focusing on younger players, freshman receiver T.J. Theus caught a short pass over the middle and was immediately and ferociously decleated by Hodge, who then let loose a rather impressive celebratory yell.

"That was just holding in the whole year, not being able to really hit nobody," Hodge said. "That was my first hit. It just felt real good."

If all goes well in the spring, Hodge could be delivering blows like that on a regular basis. Hodge said he is "real confident" heading into spring practices.

"That's one thing I noticed about my class," he said. "The freshman guys, they have a certain attitude and a certain swagger. And that attitude and swagger I feel we can thrive on and build a championship team."

"My expectations are just to do my best," he added. "I can't say I'm going to end up starting or I'm gong to end up on second string. I'm just going to go out there and fall where I'm supposed to fall and just do my best and support my team."

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