When the Vikings made three picks on the first day, a decision that left them without any picks on Day 2 of the draft, it seemed clear that linebacker was going to be a priority position on the final day of the draft.
If a team is in the market for a linebacker, where better to look than Linebacker U – Penn State. That's exactly what the Vikings did, drafting Penn State outside linebacker Gerald Hodges with their fourth-round pick.
A two-year starter for the Nittany Lions, Hodges had a pair of 100-tackle seasons, becoming just the sixth player in the history of PSU football to accomplish that feat.
Hodges had hoped to come off the board Friday in the second or third round, but when that didn't happen, he was back in front of his TV this afternoon. Frustrated as picks kept going off the board, he decided to hit the shower. And, as often happens, once you get in the shower, the phone rings. It wasn't how Hodges envisioned his draft moment would be, but he was happy regardless of the situation.
"There's no other feeling in the world – I'm talking a weight-off-my shoulders-type feeling," Hodges said. "I was sitting in the room just watching (the draft) and I happened to get in the shower to take some of the stress off me. As I'm getting out of the shower, I hear my phone ringing. I wasn't even rushing to get to the phone because I didn't know what it was. I see (a Minnesota number) and saw Minnesota (was drafting) in two picks. I just started crying."
Hodges didn't think the Vikings were going to be his landing spot, despite their clear need at linebacker – both in terms of a starting position in the middle and depth on the outside. He had been getting a lot of interest from Tampa Bay, Dallas, St. Louis and New Orleans, so he would get his hopes up when those teams were on the clock – only to have his phone remain silent and other players were getting their call of a lifetime.
"I wasn't mad or anything, but I was a little frustrated – the more and more rounds and more and more picks that (came off the board)," Hodges said. "But I know God has his plan for me and I knew God has me where he wanted me."
Hodges comes to the Vikings with a wealth of experience and versatility. He came to Penn State as a 210-pound safety, but was asked to move to linebacker when injuries took a toll on the position in 2010. He played weakside linebacker in 2011, strongside LB in 2012 and showed he could play in the middle when he played inside linebacker at the East-West Shrine Game.
With his safety background, he is a ball hawk for the linebacker position. In 2012, he had two interceptions and broke up seven other passes and believes his coverage skills were going to get him drafted higher than he was.
"I feel very comfortable," Hodges said. "That was one of my strong points. That's why I thought I was going to go a little bit earlier than what I went, because of the fact I was great in coverage."
Hodges believes his experience at Penn State has laid the groundwork for a solid NFL career. A school renowned for developing NFL linebackers, Hodges felt playing under coaching legend Joe Paterno helped him in more ways than simply X's and O's on the field.
"It was like being coached, by, not a God because nothing is higher than God, but it was like being coached by a legend while he's still coaching," Hodges said. "That was a blessing to be in his hands. He was more of a father figure than a coach. He taught you a lot of football, but, at the same time, he taught you a lot how to be a man and show respect."
Hodges was no stranger to adversity. When the sex abuse scandal surrounding Jerry Sandusky broke at Penn State and made national headlines outside of the sports realm, he was at Ground Zero. As some teammates opted to leave the program, Hodges, a team captain, rallied the players together to maintain the pride of the program at its lowest point. He believes going through those dark days helped him grow up and prepare him for the challenges he will face later in life – on and off the football field.
"I believe throughout this last year, it was truly a maturing process – a new coach coming in, having to learn new defenses, having to learn against a (pro-style) offense, things like that," Hodges said. "Being able to talk to the younger guys about how you feel about the program, I feel it was a blessing to be in the situation. Everybody was trying to knock us down. It helped me mature as a person and a man."
The Vikings haven't discussed their plans for Hodges, whether they want to keep him on the outside or move him inside. During a pre-draft press conference, general manager Rick Spielman hinted that if the Vikings didn't draft a pure middle linebacker or pick one up on what remains of the free agent market, Erin Henderson could slide inside to play MLB, which would open up a starting spot on the outside. Hodges is hopeful that his opportunity will come sooner than later and he said the Vikings coaches, including Hall of Fame linebackers coach Mike Singletary, are excited about what he brings to the table.
"They told me, ‘You have a chance to come in here and make an impact,'" Hodges said. "I feel whatever they need me to do, I'm ready to do it. I told them I can play outside or inside. I can just play the linebacker position well. I believe I'm going to do nothing but get even better playing the linebacker position."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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