Steelers QB Devlin Hodges’ former coaches saw his potential long ago
For whatever reason, there has long been a curious pipeline running from the South to the Rust Belt that has delivered a quarter-century’s worth of quarterbacks to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw was from Shreveport, La. So was Tommy Maddox. Bubby Brister and Kordell Stewart were born in Louisiana, too.
And while each, to varying degrees, spoke with a comfortable Southern twang and had the familiar characteristics of the South’s charms and quirks, it’s entirely possible none could out-Dixie the Duck.
“The first thing to know about ‘Duck,’ ” Devlin “Duck” Hodges’ former college offensive coordinator, Russ Callaway, explained by phone this week, “is he is as country as the day is long. And that is so true: I have been to the guy’s house, met the family, the whole nine. What you would think being from Pittsburgh about what country people are, he is that stereotypical country guy.”
More than a few people in the greater Birmingham, Ala., area will have their eyes on the 8:20 p.m. game Sunday between the Steelers and Los Angeles Chargers to see the Duck debut. Hodges, an undrafted rookie from Samford, will make his first NFL start.
“It’s Homecoming week right now,” Dusty Goode, the football coach at Mortimer Jordan High School, said, “and at a little school, all (Hodges’ former) teachers are still watching him and asking about him and talking about him. So, there’s a little bit of buzz.
“And I use him as an example with our team right now, that it’s OK to dream big because dreams come true.”
Hodges’ football dreams began as a kid in Kimberly, Ala. (population: 2,711) and at Mortimer Jordan (average enrollment of fewer than 200 per graduating class). But despite throwing almost 5,000 yards over his final three seasons as the Blue Devils’ starting quarterback, Hodges would end up at FCS Samford.
Hodges had offers from almost a dozen FBS schools, and he for a time was verbally committed to Southern Miss of Conference USA. But Hodges was drawn to Samford because its proximity (a half-hour drive from home) combined with the purported greater chance of playing right away.
That almost didn’t materialize — Hodges redshirted a year, and he began his redshirt freshman season under a new coaching staff as the backup to fifth-year senior Michael Eubank.
“But I knew Day 1, the first practice, that he was one of the most talented QBs I’d ever been around,” Samford coach Chris Hatcher said.
“I was like, ‘Dude, this guy, he’s the best QB we got.’ But at that time I’d come in as a new coach and I’d retained (most of the existing) staff, and so they felt like this (Eubank) was the leader of the team, so I let the guy start the first couple games. But finally I said, ‘Look man, we’re going to play this Hodges boy.’ ”
Hodges’ first start was Week 7 at Western Carolina — he had 399 passing yards, 94 rushing yards and accounted for four touchdowns. He would end that half season with 2,230 passing yards; he would end his career with 14,584 passing yards and 1,310 completions — both would break Steve McNair’s career FCS records.
Hodges would earn the Walter Payton Award, the equivalent of the Heisman for the FCS. But he still would go undrafted, unsigned after the draft and unemployed before impressing as a tryout at Steelers rookie minicamp.
“That baffled me,” Hatcher said. “I knew he probably wasn’t going to get drafted because of his height (6-foot-1) and the level he played at. But to not even get signed as a free agent right off the bat? C’mon.”
Still, Hodges made the most of his opportunity with the Steelers over summer practices, at training camp and during preseason games. But with recent third- and fourth-round picks on the roster as backups to a future Hall of Famer, that didn’t much matter when the Steelers made their final cuts.
So, as the NFL’s Week 1 was played, Hodges was unemployed and back at Samford.
“We were all at the women’s soccer game here, and Duck was at the game shooting the bull with us,” Hatcher said. “Two days later we are talking and I’m saying, ‘We’ll try to get you to the XFL. Or maybe (the CFL). I’ll make some calls.’ ”
Two days later, the Steelers called Hodges — they had traded Josh Dobbs and wanted Hodges for their practice squad.
A week after that, Hodges was promoted to the active roster when Ben Roethlisberger required season-ending elbow surgery.
Then came last week, when Mason Rudolph was concussed by a hit from Baltimore Ravens safety Earl Thomas. That’s made Hodges the Steelers’ No. 1.
“To me, the sequence of events to get us to this point has been pretty amazing,” Hatcher said. “But as far as his skill goes, if you just look at his track record I don’t think anyone would be surprised that he’s got to this point.”
Goode said a college scout compared Hodges to Brett Favre. Hatcher previously coached NFL first-round picks Tim Couch and Daunte Culpepper — “This guy (Hodges) is as good as those guys,” he said.
Why? A quick release. Good football IQ. An intangible leadership quality.
And a competitive drive.
“He is so — and I mean soooo (competitive),” Callaway said. “And it kinda (ticks) you off a little bit.”
Callaway would periodically invite Hodges over for a dinner that included his young son and daughter.
“They’re 5 and 3, and they would want to play Wiffle Ball or cornhole or whatever,” Callaway said. “And so, Duck was like really trying to beat ‘em — and beat ‘em bad! And I am like, ‘Dude, they are 5 and 3; have fun with them.’ But he doesn’t really know when to turn that competitive switch on and off. It is all the time. All. The. Time.
“He is the true definition of just ultimate competitor, whether you are going to play cornhole with 5 year olds, or you are gonna go try beat Florida State in Tallahassee, he is the ultimate competitor. And at that level, the NFL, that’s what you want.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .