With rookie Devlin Hodges set to make his first NFL start Sunday night when the Steelers travel to Los Angeles to face the Chargers, there's quite a bit of trepidation surrounding the team's chances.
After all, the Steelers are just 1-4 with Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph starting the first five games.
But Roethlisberger is out for the season with an elbow injury and Rudolph likely will miss this game with a concussion suffered in the third quarter of last Sunday's 26-23 overtime loss to the Ravens.
How are things going to look with a player who not only went undrafted in the spring, but also went unsigned after that?
The nation will be watching, hungry to learn more about Hodges. But there will be a lot of people in Birmingham, Ala., where Hodges starred at Samford University, that will be Steelers fans that day. They know all about the guy they just refer to as "Duck."
There were 11 quarterbacks selected in the 2019 NFL Draft. There were another 13 rookies signed by teams immediately after the draft. Hodges made the Steelers' roster after coming in for a tryout during rookie minicamp, beating out two other quarterbacks for the spot, including Brogan Roback, who had been one of the stars of "Hard Knocks" the year before in camp with the Browns.
Hodges quickly showed the Steelers he belonged in an NFL camp, something that was not surprising to his coaches at Samford.
"He was probably the best FCS player to ever play the game," his Samford offensive coordinator, Russ Callaway, told me. "We were shocked when he wasn't drafted. He's the all-time passing leader in FCS history. He won the Walter Payton Award. He was probably the first player to win the Payton Award in 10 years and not get drafted."
There were probably some reasons for that. First, at 6-foot-1, he doesn't have ideal size. Second, he doesn't have a cannon for an arm. But what he does is play quarterback and play it well.
"Hey, this guy just throws completions," Samford head coach Chris Hatcher said Tuesday on ESPN 970-AM. "It might not look the prettiest. He might not have the strongest arm, but he seems to be able to move the team down the field. That’s the job of the QB when it’s all said and done."
Hodges did that more than any other player in FCS history, breaking Steve McNair's all-time record for passing yards with 14,584. That's about 8.3 miles worth of yardage. He also had 111 touchdown passes. And while he was typically doing that against other FCS schools, Samford scheduled at least one Power-5 school per year.
Hodges played against the likes of Georgia, Florida State, Mississippi and Louisville in his four years at Samford. And he did so working with athletes that weren't up to that level.
"He threw for about 500 yards every time we played those schools," Callaway said. "He had some of his best games against those bigger schools."
"If people do their research, the guy was the Walter Payton Award winner, the highest honor you can get," Hatcher said. "The highest honor in FCS football. He broke a 25-year-old mark that was set by the great Steve McNair. The guy’s a very accomplished player. But the journey he’s taken has been pretty amazing."
That it has. Not only did Hodges have to earn a spot in the offseason program, finding playing time in the preseason was tough. The Steelers had a pair of young quarterbacks in Rudolph and Josh Dobbs for whom they wanted to get playing time.
And Roethlisberger was more active this offseason and at training camp than he had been in the past as he tried to get on the same page with a new group of receivers.
It didn't allow for a lot of opportunities for a guy brought in as a "camp arm."
But Hodges kept impressing.
"We would go out for seven-on-sevens and he'd get nine chances and complete seven of them," linebacker Bud Dupree said.
It wasn't always pretty. Hodges doesn't have the strongest arm, but he'll throw from all kinds of different angles, delivering the ball like the high school shortstop he was growing up in Alabama.
Hatcher and Callaway inherited Hodges as a redshirt freshman after taking over the Samford program. What they found was a quarterback who was perfect to run their version of Mike Leach's air raid offense.
"What we do, we're not super complex scheme-wise, but we would give him five different options every play," Callaway said. "When he saw it, he would get it out so quickly because his release is just so quick. He processes those things quickly and just gets it out."
But coming from that offense probably hurt Hodges in the draft process.
"Maybe it's changing a little bit because of Pat Mahomes, but people in the NFL have looked at the air raid quarterbacks as system guys," Callaway said. "Then, on top of that, Duck was an FCS guy, so he didn't get the looks he should have. Duck can play the game."
That became apparent to Mike Tomlin and the Steelers' coaching staff. They didn't treat Hodges like the typical fourth quarterback in training camp, despite the way he had gotten to that point.
"He has an awareness and savvy, or moxie, about him that is beyond his experience," Tomlin said. "It was evident in Latrobe, he carried it in the preseason stadiums and now he has given us a little insight that he is capable of carrying it into the regular season stadiums. It is all positive. Obviously, he lacks a lot of experience in the things that go with experience, but I like his demeanor. I like his 'steady Eddie' attitude and approach to it. I think that is an asset to him and us in the present circumstance."
Even so, the Steelers released him at the end of training camp, keeping Rudolph and Dobbs as their backups to Roethlisberger. But the Steelers traded Dobbs to the Jaguars for a fifth-round draft pick after Week 1 when Jacksonville starter Nick Foles was injured.
They signed Hodges back to their practice squad. Then, Roethlisberger got hurt that week and Hodges was signed to the active roster to be Rudolph's backup.
Last Sunday, the football offices at Samford were abuzz.
"We were getting ready for our next game, grinding away and somebody yelled 'Hey, Duck's in the game,'" Callaway said. "There's a little TV in the staff room, we all ran down there and watched the rest of the game."
Entering midway through the third quarter, Hodges completed 7 of 9 passes for 68 yards and had a big 21-yard run that set up a go-ahead field goal late in the fourth quarter of the loss to the Ravens. He became the first undrafted player to complete multiple passes in a game in his rookie season for the Steelers since Tony Dungy did it in 1977.
Now, he's in line to make his first career start.
"I'm freaking tickled to death for him," Callaway said. "I'm more nervous now than I was when he was here playing for me. But I just want to see him do well."
Now, about that nickname. Hatcher gave it to Hodges when he arrived on campus after finding out Hodges was an accomplished duck calling champion and hunter.
"He was a redshirt freshman. He’s a very confident player. He plays with a little bit of an edge about it. If you want to see a really confident guy, talk to him about duck hunting or ducks," Hatcher said. "I told him, 'I’m going to start calling you ‘Duck,’ because you seem more passionate about that.' I told him when he made the team having a good nickname would help carry him a long way. And sure enough, it’s helped him to get to this point. At least that’s what I like to think."
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