Labriola On

Tomlin on Hodges, 'power hour,' chippiness

Q. You’re a guy who dives into the pre-draft process every year. As a player who broke Steve McNair’s all-time passing record at the FCS level, did Devlin Hodges show up on your radar?
A. Not on my personal radar. I’m a guy who gets into the process late and has to cover a lot of ground, so usually I’m led by others – guys who are regional scouts or positional scouts, or Kevin Colbert. Those guys do a great job of getting and doing the recon – getting out and scouting the landscape. Devlin Hodges drew the attention of several people in our scouting department and that’s how we got on his trail.

Q. Did you see Hodges on video before he showed up at rookie minicamp for a tryout?
A. I did not watch game tape. I watched the profile tape, and often times, that’s the case when you start talking about guys who are camp invites. You get a gist of who they are, and you get enough to get an understanding of what maybe walks through the door, and then you develop your opinions based on what happens that weekend.

Q. So what was the gist you got when you watched the profile tape?
A. That he knows how to play. That he’s got good savvy and feel for the game, but he’s got some physical limitations to overcome, and that’s probably what you speak to when you talk about a guy who broke Steve McNair’s records but wasn’t on everyone’s radar. The quarterback position in particular in today’s game has some cookie-cutter boxes to check if you’re talking about evaluating, and in particular evaluating at the higher end of the position. When guys don’t meet certain height standards, or ball velocity standards, or arm strength standards, they have some obstacles to overcome. And also you have to acknowledge that the quarterback market is now flooded with guys under 6-foot-1, and so what used to be unique – maybe there were one or two guys you were evaluating in that way – now there are quite a few guys you’re evaluating in that way. And him being from Samford and not from Oklahoma like Kyler Murray for instance, Hodges just got lost in that shuffle, I’m sure.

Q. In general when evaluating college players how do you account for the level of competition, and how much of a factor is that alone?
A. It’s not a factor we weight very heavily. Let’s face it, we didn’t invest a lot in Hodges initially. We just gave him a rookie tryout camp invite. We didn’t weigh those variables as heavily as you’d like to think we did. We liked what we saw on the tape, he got the ball out in rhythm, he was an anticipatory passer, and that was enough to invest a weekend. And then what he did here kind of built the relationship from there.

Q. So Hodges came here on a tryout basis during the weekend of rookie minicamp, and then what did you see at that time to convince you to keep him over Brogan Roback, who already was on your 90-man roster and had been through an NFL training camp the previous summer?
A. Exactly what I just stated. I was really impressed by his ability to anticipate and get the ball out on rhythm even with new exposure to offense and receivers. That’s an indication of football intellect or feel for the game that’s been consistent throughout. He’s had bumps along the way that young guys experience – he didn’t make our opening 53-man roster. But there was enough there to maintain our interest, because he’s got some of those things that you can’t coach – the ability to anticipate and get the ball out on rhythm.

Q. In the category of giving players what they need, when Hodges starts at quarterback today, what will he need from you during the game?
A. There are going to be enough emotions. There are going to be enough emotions in the stadium, there are going to be enough emotions from him, so I’m just going to try to be steady Eddie. I want to be that calming voice, that calming exchange, that guy who when he looks me in the eye he knows I’m not riding the emotional roller coaster and I don’t expect him to, either. He’s going to have good plays; he’s going to have some plays he wishes he could have back. The key is to stay in the fight and stay in the fight for 60 minutes.

Q. Understanding that young players are in a different category in this respect, but what do you need to see from a player on the injury report during the week of practice before you’re comfortable using him in the game?
A. It really depends on the guy. If I have a long history with him, and he shows great football intellect and exposure to our system of football over the course of time, then you can carry those guys into the stadium on a limited amount of work if they’re given a clean bill of health. Some other guys, because of youth or new exposure to us or this environment or our system of football, they need in-helmet perspective on preparation. Or they’re not going to help us, or they’re not going to be capable of playing above-the-line whether they’re healthy or not. So there are different standards of expectation, and I’m very transparent with our football team in that regard. Everyone is treated fairly. Everyone isn’t treated equally, because the bottom line is you want to put guys out on the field who you know are prepared and capable of playing winning football.

Q. One of the final things on the weekly schedule leading up to a game is called the “power hour.” What is that, and what’s its purpose?
A. Whenever we play in the later portions of the day, either primetime or 4:30 p.m., it’s just an opportunity to gather in the morning and look each other in the eye and analyze what we’ve done and make any final adjustments that need to be made, to stimulate some thought. Sometimes when you’re on the road, it gets people out of their hotel rooms and gets them on their feet. Often times we’ll do it in a hotel ballroom and do it in a walk-through fashion. Just a thing to get guys moving and together when we’re spending a lot of time separate and in hotel rooms waiting for the opportunity to kick the ball off.

Q. In the regular season, if a practice during the week of preparation gets a little bit chippy – not out-and-out fighting and nobody gets hurt – do you see that as a sign of intensity or wasted energy?
A. It just depends on the variables. Sometimes it’s both. One thing is for sure – football is an emotional game and it’s always going to be an emotional game. And particularly, quite honestly, when you’re not doing as well as you’d like, people’s patience get short. And rightfully so. We have a group that’s edgy and appropriately so. The key for us is to take that edge and distribute it appropriately inside stadiums on game day, which we intend to do.

Q. All last season, your team finished with 15 takeaways. This season through five games, you have 12. To what do you attribute this improvement?
A. We’ve been talking openly about a desire to be better in that area. We haven’t been bashful about it. But more than just the words, it has been the actions. The day-to-day habits we’re trying to create culturally in terms of ball awareness and ball disruption and the addition of some guys have been central to that. We’re just working our tails off, and I know that we need it. And we’re going to need it in this game tonight.

Q. Five games into the season, Benny Snell and Ulysees Gilbert both have multiple tackles on special teams. Does that tell you anything about their futures on offense and defense, respectively, as they mature as NFL players?
A. No question it does. Just my experience tells me that young players who find ways to be productive no matter where you put them is an indication of productive players moving forward over the course of their careers. They’re football players first, they’re positional players second. So when you have guys who are natural football players, you put them on special teams and they make the plays because they’re competitors and they’re football players. And we challenge guys openly in that way. We show them Hines Ward’s tackle statistics when he was a special teamer early in his career, and so forth and so on. A lot of guys have really earned their way and carved out a niche for themselves at least initially in that space. Production in that area usually is an indicator of production as they get an opportunity to become positional guys.

Q. Does production on special teams get you a shot at a position quicker?
A. This is how it does: if you become a necessary guy as opposed to a useful guy on special teams, you’re in a helmet every week. And every week we step into stadiums, things happen. Tyler Matakevich is a guy who is a “special teamer,” but just about every week in some form or fashion you see Tyler playing defensive football for us. And because you’re a necessary component of that phase, you’re always available, you’re always in a helmet, and that puts you in position to seize opportunities.

Q. Do you have rules for when you want your kickoff return guy to bring the ball out vs. take a touchback?
A. I do, and the parameters and variables are different week-to-week. Sometimes weather is a factor in terms of windage, the hang of the football based on the kicker’s ability. The kick can be 1-yard deep into the end zone, but it can be a very different kick if it’s 3.7 second hang-time 1-yard deep in the end zone as opposed to 4.5 second hang-time 1-yard deep in the end zone. There are a lot of variables and those change week to week, and so it’s something we talk about and think about in terms of making that determination.

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