Is Hodges ready? LB learned a lot in a year

Gerald Hodges admits his study habits lacked last year and he blames himself for his lack of playing time. On Sunday, he should get his first start to show how far he’s come.

For more than seven seasons, the Vikings have had one constant on defense – linebacker Chad Greenway.

He has transformed from a young gun on a veteran team to a veteran on a young, aspiring team. He has been a leader both on and off the field and the centerpiece of the Vikings defense during times of change.

On Sunday, if the Vikings are going to halt their current losing skid, they’re going to do so without Greenway. Suffering from a broken bone in his left hand and a broken rib, Greenway won’t play Sunday and his spot in the lineup will be taken by second-year pro Gerald Hodges.

As a rookie, Hodges came to the Vikings with high expectations, but did very little with the Vikings defense. Most of his time on the field was spent on special teams. Under the new Mike Zimmer regime, Hodges had seen his role expand even before Greenway’s injuries.

Hodges has grown professionally and, as is often the case, his progression has been more the result of becoming “football smart” rather than being the result of his pure athleticism.

“I know my athletic ability,” Hodges said. “I know what I can do physically, but just keeping mentally up to par and things like that and making sure I’m focused day in and day out with no errors. Try to eliminate as many errors as I can.”

Hodges wasn’t fully aware of the learning curve he was going to face as he moved to the NFL. He had always been a star in high school and college and could make up for mistakes and missteps by his supreme athleticism.

But in the NFL, everyone is an elite athlete and mistakes that put players a step or two out of position get exploited. As a rookie, it was slow going as Hodges learned his role in the defense and quickly realized that he had a long way to go to reach his full potential – a process that will take its next formative step Sunday when he makes his first NFL start.

“If you come in as a rookie, you’re not the best player on the team,” Hodges said. “There’s guys that have been around here and know what to do and been through everything they need to get through so they can be the best. There are things I had to get through and had learn about the NFL before I can sit there and step up and think I can just take on a roll like. Just being able to get accustomed to film study and things like that helped me out a lot.”

Hodges’ attention to detail has made its way from the classroom to the field and it has made an impression on Greenway, who has served as both an example and a mentor. While Greenway is viewed as an ultimate “gamer,” he knew earlier in the week that Hodges likely would be replacing him in the lineup against Atlanta.

Although he would prefer to be on the field, Greenway feels some consolation knowing that his position is in good hands with Hodges.

“He’s done a great job,” Greenway said. “I thought he had a great week of practice. He’s a gamer. He’ll be totally fine. He’s going to make a ton of plays and be all over the place. Just try to keep his emotions in check, know he’s going to play a lot of snaps and just be ready to go. He’s going to be awesome.”

Just as Greenway has been impressed with Hodges, the feeling goes both ways. Hodges has picked Greenway’s brain and used him as an example for how he should carry himself as a player. Asked what he has learned from Greenway, Hodges said it was as much off the field as on the field.

“Just being a professional,” Hodges said. “When you’re in the NFL, even a lot of stars, guys aren’t a professional. Chad is a professional the way he handles his things on and off the field – in practice, in the film room. That’s the biggest thing. The sooner you take that step to being a professional, the more it’s going to carry you over on film work.”

The lack of playing time he got last year was a source of frustration for Hodges, but it wasn’t because he felt he should surpass someone on the depth chart. In hindsight, the fault lay not with the coaching staff, but with Hodges himself. After seeing what he could accomplish, he has committed himself completely to becoming a better player and discovered how lacking his work habits were as a rookie.

“After last year and then coming in this year and seeing how things played out and seeing how things go in the NFL, I believe I frustrated myself last year just by not paying attention to detail as far as film work and things like that,” Hodges said. “I’m pretty much to blame for my own self last year for just trying to let my talent and athletic ability take over instead of putting the time in on and off the field.”

His teammates and coaches have noticed his improvement and are confident that, while he hasn’t been a prime-time player in the Vikings defense yet, he is ready to take on the challenge.

“I thought he did some good things,” Zimmer said. “He got most of the reps in practice this week, so he did some good things. We have got to continue to get him going. He’s got a lot of athletic ability. I need to make sure he stays on his P’s and Q’s as far as being disciplined and doing the right thing every play.”

From the moment he first put on a helmet as a child, the dream being a starter in the NFL hasn’t gone away. If anything, as he got closer to the NFL, that dream only got stronger as it got closer.

It would be understandable if Hodges had some butterflies when he takes to the field at TCF Bank Stadium Sunday. Understandable, that is, to everyone but Hodges.

“No nervousness at all,” Hodges said. “I’ve been playing football all my life. It’s just one of those opportunities. I’m not going to say I’m not excited, but I wouldn’t say I’m nervous.”

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