On Friday afternoon, a little more than 48 hours before he was about to play his first NFL game, Devlin Hodges, known as ‘Duck’ to everyone in the locker room, stood at his locker and joked with some of the offensive linemen who have a locker by his.
He said something to Chuks Okorafor, who he just so happened to pose with on the field before practice in a fun moment, that had them smiling. The always fun-loving Zach Banner added his two cents, and the three laughed.
There was no sign of stress, no sign of anxiety for the rookie quarterback who just walked off the field from the final practice before his big night.
“Do you have a minute,” I asked Hodges.
“Absolutely,” he enthusiastically answered, making me feel like he truly didn’t mind being asked just a few more questions, after he had to feel like he had been asked every question possible this week.
There was one, though, that he hadn’t been asked and only because it was finally the end of his first week preparing to be the Steelers starting quarterback.
“What has this week been like for you?”
He stopped for a few seconds, leaning against his locker smiling. Then, in the Southern accent he just can’t hide, he quietly reflected on the week.
“It’s been an experience,” said Hodges. “Getting reps with the first team. Being in the huddle with some of guys. You have JuJu (Smith-Schuster) and James Conner, guys people like up to, celebrities in a lot of people’s eyes. Being in the huddle with them is awesome. It’s fun. I have been in the scout team huddle, but being in the huddle with starters, it’s awesome.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the answer because for the past three days those starters he was in the huddle with have done nothing but sing his praises.
“He is going to let it go regardless,” said Smith-Schuster, who first caught a pass from Hodges against the Ravens last week. “He trusts in us, so he puts it up. We trust in him that he is going to throw it up and we are going to make that play for him. Either we catch it, or nobody is going to catch it. He is very confident in the huddle and he is going to throw the ball.”
Whether it was Conner, or Maurkice Pouncey, or Smith-Schuster or Vance McDonald, you didn’t hear one bad word about him and it’s because there is nothing bad to say about Hodges.
Hodges has a Southern humbleness that you would find in someone from Kimberly, Alabama, where the population is around 3,300 people and the motto is, ‘Small City, Big Heart.’
“He is a joy to be around,” said McDonald. “Whenever he is not back there running the show, he is outspoken, joking, keeping it light kind of guy. Not that it’s different, he is just more focused. It’s always fun to pull that smile out of him because you know it's there. He is a lot of fun.
“Duck has always had that. When he first got here people were instantly drawn to him. You never know what that is about a person. With Duck it was always his day is never bad. He is always in a good mood. It’s never the end of the world. He is very even keeled. He is a lot of fun. He is light-hearted. It’s not burdensome to be around him. You want to go out and play hard and play well for him. That is what makes it kind of fun to be around.
“He is confident. He wants to come out and sling it. I like him as a person. He is fun to be in the huddle with. We’re excited to carry Duck into the game. I think he’ll play well.”
Hodges originally signed with the Steelers as a rookie free agent after making an impression in rookie minicamp as a tryout player. At Samford he set a single-season school record with 4,283 yards passing last season, breaking his own record set in 2016. He won the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the top offensive player in FCS football. Hodges also won the SoCon Offensive Player of the Year for the third straight year. Hodges finished his college career with 14,584 passing yards, breaking Steve McNair’s FSC record for most career passing yards.
“I played Madden growing up and I would always be the Titans and get Steve McNair as my quarterback,” recalled Hodges. “Then, there I was breaking his passing record. It’s cool to look back at that.”
Hodges stepped in last week against the Ravens when Mason Rudolph left the game with a concussion and completed seven of nine passes for 68 yards. One thing that won’t show up on the stat sheet though was his confidence. That was off the charts.
“He walks into the huddle like a little kid, but he plays big. He is just confident,” said Ramon Foster. “When you are a passer type of guy and you played well at whatever level you played at, you have a certain confidence in yourself that you can prove people wrong. I am sure he probably wasn’t first on the depth chart when he started out at Samford and he turned that into a career.
“He is excited. Which is good. In this business they don’t know too much about him. We’re still figuring it out too. He is a guy who is very sure about himself. That is a good thing. If there is a play to be made, he is going to be the guy that looks to make that type of play. I am excited. It’s exciting for a young guy like that, that is not timid about the situation.”
Timid. No chance.
“I have always imagined this, dreamt about it,” said Hodges. “I know when I was growing up, I always pictured it in my head. Playing out in the yard, I dreamt about playing for an NFL team, playing for a college team, whatever it was. I always had those dreams, that vision. It’s exciting.
“No matter what, you still have to remember to enjoy this. It’s fun. If it wasn’t fun, I don’t know how many people would be doing this. It’s a whole lot of fun, the camaraderie in the locker room, on the field and the friends that you make. I’ve always heard that 20 years after you play football it’s not that touchdown pass that you threw that you are talking about, it’s that story whoever told in the locker room. I try to do that. I don’t always say let’s have fun. I just act that way, try to enjoy it and have fun.”
And 20 years from now, there likely will be a lot of Duck tales to share.