Hodge better off in the middle

Less than two weeks into training camp, rookie Abdul Hodge is proving that he is worthy of starting at middle linebacker for the Green Bay Packers. Hodge's performance thus far should encourage the Packers to move Nick Barnett from the middle to the strong-side position very soon.

Hodge is a middle linebacker – period. He is one of those players who has a nose for the ball. Last year at Iowa he ranked third in the nation with a whopping 13.2 tackles per game. He's the type of "football guy" that general manager Ted Thompson wants on the team.

The Packers inserted him at strong-side linebacker a little during the mini-camps and Organized Team Activities, but have kept him at middle linebacker in training camp. Coach Mike McCarthy has said that he prefers rookies to play one position before moving on to other positions, which is another good reason to move Barnett outside rather than Hodge.

During the team's Family Night scrimmage on Saturday, it was Hodge and not first-round pick A.J. Hawk who was the defensive star. Hodge finished with nine tackles, including five solo. Hodge's performance in the scrimmage was no fluke. He also has been around the ball during scrimmages in practice each day.

Like most rookie linebackers, Hodge's biggest challenge will be in pass coverage. Though there has been talk of moving Hodge to the strong-side position in front of veteran Ben Taylor, it would only make sense to keep Hodge in the middle where he is comfortable (he played middle linebacker the last three seasons at Iowa), and move Barnett to the strong-side position. Barnett obviously has much more experience covering backs, tight ends and receivers than Hodge. As a former college safety, Barnett is much better in coverage than Hodge and Taylor. Taylor could then serve as a valuable backup in case of an injury to a starter.

With Hawk, Hodge and Barnett, the Packers have a linebacker corp that could be formidable for years to come. If the Packers got away with starting Barnett at middle linebacker in 2003, there is no reason to think that they couldn't do the same with Hodge.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy admitted Tuesday that he is not opposed to moving Barnett to an outside position, so it may happen soon. In fact, the sooner the better.

"I have no reason to think that he's not (capable)," McCarthy said. "Because of our system of linebackers, the base front they're all off the ball, so there's a lot of carryover from position to position."

Since Barnett was selected by the Packers in the first round of the 2003 draft, fans have wanted to see what he can do at the outside position. But the Packers never had anyone better or as good as Barnett to play the middle linebacker position. Now they have Hodge, a player who grew up admiring Hall of Famer Mike Singletary.

"I've always admired him," Hodge said. "He was an aggressive player. I liked his style.

"As the middle linebacker, I try to be the leader, I try to be the tone-setter."

So far, Hodge is showing coaches that he has the potential to be a very good NFL player. If he can keep it up through Saturday's preseason game at San Diego and thereafter, he'll find himself as the starter at middle linebacker.

Todd Korth

Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at packrepted@aol.com.

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