Coming from a renowned football program like Penn State and learning from a head coach with previous NFL experience, the transition to the NFL might not seem overwhelming for a star linebacker in college.
Instead, it was a wake-up call for 2013 Minnesota Vikings fourth-round draft pick Gerald Hodges out of Penn State.
“Not just a wake-up call for me, but any rookie. It’s a wake-up call when you get that extra year, God allows you to that next year,” Hodges said as his second training camp in the NFL draws to a close and reflecting on the progress he has made. “Just being able to go out there and see what you’ve done and see how you’re going to do things differently. It’s definitely a wake-up call, coming from college to the NFL, you don’t know what to expect. I had Coach (Bill) O’Brien my last year, my senior year, so I’ve kind of got a little head start, but at the end of the day you still don’t know what it’s like.”
After 14 years coaching college, O’Brien gained six years as an offensive assistant and coordinator under Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots before taking over a shaken Penn State program from 2012-13. O’Brien gets his first NFL head coaching opportunity this year with the Houston Texans.
At Penn State, Hodges started 26 of 44 games and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors as a senior by conference coaches and media, with similar accolades after his junior season. He was also selected Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week three times in his career.
But even that experience under a seasoned coach didn’t prepare Hodges for the reality many NFL rookies face when they go from a star player in college to the bench in the NFL.
Hodges played in 11 games last year and 36 percent of the special teams snaps. But he got only two snaps on defense. This year, nearly everything is different for him – the coaching staff, the defense and a year of acclimation to the NFL process.
“Just knowing what to expect,” he said. “We’ve got a new coaching staff, so not everything is going to be ran the same as the last coaching staff, but just coming out here and knowing what to expect, knowing what players I’m working with and what teammates I have … just know what to expect.”
Whether that’s the reason or not, Hodges appears on an upward curve early in the preseason. He has produced some noteworthy plays in recent days.
In the preseason opener, Hodges tied for second on the team with four tackles, including one for a loss, and added another on special teams. But his signature play was a blocked field goal attempt in the fourth quarter.
“(Special teams coordinator Mike) Priefer, he puts a big emphasis on that. We go in the game and I happened to see a crease and I just hit it,” he said. “I go back there to block it and use the technique he taught us.
“You’ve got a certain gap you’ve got to hold, but most of the time when you go, you’re just going. You’re trying to find the gap and get through it.”
It was the first blocked field goal of his career.
But he continued to impress with “splash” plays this week in practice. On Wednesday, he had a big hit on tight end Kyle Rudolph and followed that up with a diving interception of a Teddy Bridgewater pass.
“He’s doing much better,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s got good athleticism, he’s got physicality when he strikes you, he can run and I’m hopeful for him.”
He has worked his way up to regularly getting second-team reps at strongside linebacker behind 2014 first-round pick Anthony Barr. Hodges has also been used in certain passing-down packages with the starting unit.
“I feel as though I’ve got my body in better shape than it was last year. I’m not saying I was in bad shape, but I feel I worked on a few things to better myself, such as speed, conditioning, things like that,” he said.
It all comes with a year of experience in the NFL, even if the system and responsibilities have changed.
“I feel comfortable. I feel I’m back to playing football again,” he said. “I feel as though I wasn’t as focused as I needed to be as an NFL linebacker that I am this year, and my focus has helped me be able to play faster and move the way I want to move and read offenses the way I wanted to read it.”
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
After ‘wake-up call,’ Hodges more focused
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