As a fourth round rookie last year, linebacker Gerald Hodges was nearly invisible. He played in just 11 games and all of his tackles were on special teams. He almost never saw the field, despite injuries and the Erin Henderson situation that tested the team’s depth, and there were questions as to what role (if any) he would play in the Vikings defense.
It wasn’t much. Hodges played in only two defensive snaps as rookie.
A year later, Hodges looks like a different player. He was on the field for more than 20 percent of the team’s defensive plays and finished fourth in tackles with four – the first defensive stops of his NFL career.
The proverbial light switch has turned on with Hodges and he has become a markedly different player than the one that arrived from Penn State a year ago. Coming from Linebacker U, Hodges didn’t think he had all the answers, but quickly realized he had a long way to go to be successful in the NFL and has spent the offseason and preseason trying to catch up by doing the little things.
“The biggest thing is being able to pay attention to detail,” Hodges said. “Everyone here is athletic. Everyone here is strong. What’s going to put you over the top is film study, knowing the defense and knowing the offense you’re up against. It’s the attention to detail each and every day that makes all the difference. Coach Zimmer knows defense inside and out. It’s also learning from the veteran guys – how they watch film, how they take notes. You pick up on what they’re doing and it all comes together for you.”
While blessed with pure athleticism, Hodges realized last year that he had gotten by with the gifts God gave him and that at the NFL level everyone had a similar skill set or some attribute that sets them apart. He had to become a student of the game and he has seen what a difference that can make when one puts in the extra time to become the best player he can be.
“Last year, I think I was relying on ability too much and not paying enough attention to film study,” Hodges said. “In high school and college, you could get by on just athleticism. When you get here, it’s a reality check. Everyone’s big. Everyone’s strong. Everyone’s fast. You’re at a disadvantage. You can’t use your ability against a 350-pound lineman. You’re going to lose. You have to pay more attention to the scheme and the little things that can improve your game.”
Hodges credits teammate Chad Greenway as being the example he has tried to follow. A veteran who knows the NFL game inside and out over his nine years in the league, it would be realistic to think that Greenway could coast through meetings and practice because there isn’t much he hasn’t seen. But what impressed Hodges was the extent to which Greenway meticulously studies film and takes notes as reminders of how to translate what is being taught by the coaches into practical use on the field.
“When it comes to meetings, the last two years I’ve been sitting next to Chad,” Hodges said. “Watching the way he breaks down film and takes notes for tip sheets has helped. He plays a position in base defense and a position in nickel. His attention has to be that much higher. You start to pick up little things that he’s carrying away from the classroom to the field. As soon as you can start taking the things you learn and pick up in the classroom and take that to the field, then you’re on point.”
One of the biggest hurdles Hodges had to overcome as a rookie was to ask questions if there was something he didn’t fully understand or a concept he didn’t grasp. He wasn’t aware that most coaches believe that there is no such thing as a stupid question. He learned that lesson and now he’s constantly in the ears of his coaches and teammates trying to make sure he picks up everything and pays attention to the small details that can make all the difference in a game situation.
“Last year, if I didn’t understand something, I wouldn’t ask questions,” Hodges said. “I thought I could just make up for mistakes with my speed. This year, I’m almost annoying with it. I’ll ask questions about everything. Some people might think it’s a little stupid, but if I don’t get something, I want the exact details. So I’m asking questions all the time now.”
Hodges has a couple of big obstacles in his way to getting a lot of playing time – Greenway and rookie Anthony Barr – but he is making the most of the opportunities he gets and is prepared to be the “next man up” when and if he’s needed.
He has taken a lot of pride in his work and he is learning that his diligence is paying off. If he has a game where his role is just special teams, he’s not going to sit at his locker and pout. One of the lessons he’s learned as that all he can do is put forward his best effort for the team, whether it’s in a large role or a small one.
“A lot of veterans I talk to tell me that when it comes to getting on the field and trying to impress the coaches is that all you can control is what you do,” Hodges said. “When I’m on the field, I can control that I’m in the right position and make plays when they come my way. You have to be a team player and let the chips fall where they may. I don’t sit around here with an attitude. I’m excited that the team is playing well and I’m just happy to be a part of it and will keep pushing myself to get better so I can be on the field more and helping our team win more games.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Hodges putting in time in second season
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