“Just be yourself,” he told the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ newest starting quarterback at practice. “Be Duck.”
That’s all Pittsburgh needs Hodges to be as the team squares off in a high-stakes rematch with the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Used in place of Mason Rudolph in the second half of last week’s win against the Bengals, Hodges reinvigorated his team — and he didn’t turn the ball over.
That combination led coach Mike Tomlin to give Hodges the starting job this week.
“I thought the quarterback position by virtue, by nature of the job, it’s an opportunity to provide that spark,” Tomlin said. “And he made a play there early on, I thought was significant and energized not only our offensive unit, but our team and our sideline. It was enough for us to get out of that stadium. We’ll see what this week holds.”
Recreating that energy from one week to the next isn’t a given, but Hodges’ rapport with his teammates can make it possible.
Tuesday morning, Hodges used his day off to go duck hunting with James Washington. It was the second time the pair have gone hunting in the last two weeks. There’s not much carryover between hunting and playing football, but there are a few similarities, Hodges admitted with a laugh.
“You’ve got to lead a duck,” he said. “It’s a little bit different for the simple fact that they may be a little faster, and I’m pretty sure the gun I shoot is maybe a little faster than the ball I throw.”
Just a couple days earlier, Hodges connected with Washington for the 79-yard score that jump-started the Steelers to the 16-10 win. He didn’t make any more spectacular plays in the win, but his spark and game management helped the Steelers hang on in the second half.
“I think [the players] respond to the underdog,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “I think we all do to some degree. I get that. The bottom line is he’s on the roster and he’s competed and he’s been through training camp, he’s been through minicamp, so it’s not new.
“I think there’s a confidence and a camaraderie with the players. They’ve been with him. You have a group of buddies on the team and everyone cheers for your buddy.”
Guard Ramon Foster, an 11-year veteran, agreed.
“You get a guy that also realizes this is an opportunity for him to kind of make a name for himself in this league,” Foster said. “There’s no telling what could happen for him moving forward. People can see that he played ball. I think he has the chip of the small school, short guy on the shoulder. Not short guy, but he has that working for him. I love it. I’m going to support it.”
Ryan Clark reacts to Mike Tomlin announcing his decision to start Devlin Hodges over Mason Rudolph in Week 13 vs. the Browns.
Playing as an underdog gives Hodges a fearlessness in a situation that usually comes with a bunch of pressure. But Hodges has been in similar positions throughout his career as a high school quarterback in Alabama and as an FCS record-setter at Samford.
“I don’t have anything to lose,” he said. “I was undrafted. … I’ve always been this kind of calm, cool and collected. I think a lot of that comes from getting prepared and being prepared, and when you’ve got some guys around me that are as good as they are that can block up front and make the catches and run the ball, it makes my job a lot easier.”
But even though Hodges doesn’t have anything personally to lose, his team goes into Sunday’s matchup with a lot on the line. At 6-5, playing a 5-6 Browns team, the Steelers are still in the playoff hunt and holding off the Browns would be a huge boost. To do that, the Steelers need Hodges to play a clean game.
Rudolph struggled with turnovers in the last game against the Browns, throwing four interceptions. He continued the trend a week later when he threw an end zone interception, and it ultimately led to Hodges getting another opportunity — this one born out of ability and not injury-created necessity.
Getting the start this week doesn’t guarantee Hodges the starting job for the rest of the season. He knows that, and he doesn’t let that add any pressure to the situation.
“I really just try to have fun,” Hodges said. “I may not always be the guy that’s talking the most, but I think just how I walk around and how I play, people see that I’m having fun, enjoying it. Football is a fun game. A group of guys around me that are as good as they are and make my job easier, it’s really fun. It’s fun to say football is my job.”