PITTSBURGH — The legend of Devlin Hodges doesn’t start on a football field.
Instead, the story of the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ newest QB1 begins in a hockey rink in Birmingham, Alabama.
Hodges was 2 years old the first time he was strapped into a pair of ice skates.
A year later, he was playing on a team with 4- and 5-year-olds coached by his dad. A toddler on a hockey team in the heart of the deep south.
“We put him on the skates,” said his mom, Amy. “And I mean literally he took off.”
So, too, did the tall tales of “Duck” Hodges.
A hockey natural who later become a record-setting FCS quarterback, Hodges enters Sunday night’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) as the projected starting quarterback. Mason Rudolph sustained a concussion against the Ravens, but he returned Wednesday to limited practice, and Ben Roethlisberger, the man Rudolph replaced, suffered a season-ending elbow injury Week 2.
A month ago, Hodges was at home in Alabama, mowing his mom’s lawn. He had plans to try out for another team when the Steelers called. That call put him on the fast track to starting in a week in which the Steelers are trying to salvage their season. But that’s been the story of Hodges’ life.
About that nickname
Hodges is known by his family and everyone back home as Devlin, but at Samford University and in Pittsburgh, he goes by a different name: Duck.
The nickname started during his redshirt freshman year at Samford, because he constantly talked about duck hunting and duck calling. Coach Chris Hatcher started calling him Duck, and it wasn’t long before his receivers picked up on it.
“When you say Devlin around our place, people don’t even know who you’re talking about,” Samford offensive coordinator Russ Callaway said.
When he got to Pittsburgh, coach Mike Tomlin added his own spin to the name, calling him “Duck Dynasty.”
Hodges and his brother started duck hunting with their dad when they were kids. Once Zane introduced his oldest son to the duck call, he hardly ever put it down. He was a natural and started competing in call tournaments and championships in the southeast, frequently traveling to Arkansas to hunt and compete.
On one trip to Stuttgart, Arkansas, for the Junior World Duck Calling Contest, Hodges, then 7 years old, and his dad stopped into Rich-N-Tones, a company that specializes in high-end duck calls.
By chance, they met the owner, Butch Richenback, a legend in the duck hunting and calling community, who took a liking to Hodges. Richenback began training Hodges on the duck call, and after a couple years, and many trips to Stuttgart later, Hodges won the 2009 Junior World Duck Calling Contest.
Because of the duck calling, the Hodges’ house was never quiet. Sometimes, Devlin, his younger brother, Duncan, and his dad would work on their calls together.
“It’s unbearably loud,” Amy said. “At our old house we had a basement, and I would be like ‘OK, go to the basement and shut the door, please.'”
But duck calling isn’t like throwing a football — at least not for Hodges. He’s the kind of natural who doesn’t need to practice every day to be good. While Hodges let competition duck calling take a backseat to football in college, he proved he still had it last year when he won the Alabama state duck calling championship.
“He can go months without picking up a duck call and then pick it up and go win contest,” Amy said. “To me, it’s almost like a musical instrument. You can either do it well or you can’t.”
The first time he stepped on a football field, Devlin Hodges threw a touchdown pass.
He was 5 years old.
Already a couple seasons into his youth ice hockey career as a wing and a center, Hodges was 4 when he started pestering his parents to let him play football. But they made him wait a year to suit up. It didn’t take him long to make up for lost time. On the very first drive of his very first game, he scored.
A couple people came up to Amy afterward and told her how impressed they were with Devlin. Amy and her husband Zane just laughed. Talent was a part of it, sure, but to them, the touchdown was more indicative of their son’s calm demeanor.
“There’s a Seinfeld episode where Kramer is with a beauty queen, he’s like ‘poise counts’ and we’d laugh because we watch it all the time,” Amy said.
“Somebody was like, he’s really good. No, it’s like poise counts. … You’re not really being serious about a future when somebody is 5.”
Turns out, Hodges had a future.
He was recruited by FBS schools and initially committed to Southern Miss, but he instead wound up at Samford, a program a little closer to home. After wowing a new coaching staff through spring practice and fall camp of his redshirt freshman season, Hodges took over for the incumbent starter at halftime of the fourth game.
“I’ll be damned, we put him in and he started for three years and 75% of another year, and all he did was break the all-time leading FCS passing record and, won the Walter Payton Award and is probably the best player in the FCS history,” Callaway said.
“He doesn’t have an unbelievable arm like [Rams quarterback Jared] Goff. He doesn’t have that elite of an arm, but it’s not far behind. His moxie, his cockiness, his quick release and just his ball playin’, to me, makes up for what he lacks in all that.”
One of Hodges’ best performances came against an FBS opponent.
Always an underdog, Hodges looked like anything but in gutsy showings against Florida State and Mississippi State.
The first play of his first possession against Florida State a year ago looked awfully similar to his Pee Wee debut nearly two decades prior. His coaches called “black purple spear,” sending receiver Kelvin McKnight deep with a triple move. Even as the pocket collapsed with two Florida State defensive ends closing in, Hodges unloaded and connected with McKnight for a 54-yard touchdown.
Just like that, Samford was up 6-0 on an ACC opponent’s home field.
“That kind of set the tone for that whole game,” Callaway said.
In an eventual 10-point loss, Hodges went for 475 yards, connecting on 39 of 60 attempts with two touchdowns and four interceptions.
Hodges spent the rest of that season shattering records en route to the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent to the Heisman. In his Samford career, Hodges threw for 14,584 career passing yards, breaking the FCS record set by former Tennessee Titans star Steve McNair in 1994.
Despite the awards and records, the stigma of being an air-raid quarterback coupled with his FCS background had the 6-foot-1 Hodges go undrafted this spring. Hodges kept his poise, though, and worked his way from a rookie minicamp tryout to a training camp invite, a practice squad nod, a spot on the 53-man roster and now a shot to start on Sunday Night Football.
“He’s bold and fearless,” said Adam McCurry, who grew up with Hodges. “Almost every game or every time he would have one big play or something that was just a Super Bowl throw that was across the middle. He’s meant for the moment.”
“I feel like Mason would wear a suit on the field if he could, and Duck would have on a camo outfit.”
Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Fred Johnson
A week ago, coming in for Rudolph, Hodges did what he had done many times in the past. He led the Steelers on a touchdown drive in his first series. He finished 7-of-9 passing for 68 yards.
“When it comes to football, I always prepare like I’m going to be the guy,” Hodges said. “I think that’s why when I was thrown out there and I wasn’t nervous, I was prepared and confident. I just have a lot of belief in myself. The nerves are still there. I might just do a better job at hiding them.”
One big opportunity
Roughly two hours before kickoff against the Ravens, Hodges took the field to warm up alongside Rudolph. Rudolph was all business in a black T-shirt and black shorts with a small white towel tucked in his waistband, while Hodges was dressed more for a game of backyard football than an NFL warm-up. He wore a backward flat-billed cap and gray sweatpants. While Rudolph went through a meticulous routine, Hodges looked relaxed, smiling as he tossed the ball around beside Rudolph.
“I feel like Mason would wear a suit on the field if he could, and Duck would have on a camo outfit,” offensive lineman Fred Johnson said. “That’s just who they are. Duck’s more loose. … Mason is more like stern, efficient with what he does. He doesn’t waste energy dancing around and stuff like that.”
But even if the two are opposite in their approaches, they quickly formed a friendship in the locker room. Johnson’s locker is situated between the two, but sometimes, he said, it’s like he doesn’t exist when the quarterbacks walk in.
“They interrupt every conversation I have. Every one,” Johnson said. “Sometimes Duck is in my locker, and he’s talking with Mason. And he’s like, maybe I should just switch lockers. I was like, ‘No, you should stay where you at because I like where I’m at.'”
Hodges is one of the newer guys on the team, and as an undrafted rookie, he’s on the lowest rung of the ladder. But it didn’t take him long to endear himself to his teammates. Roethlisberger even called him “fearless” because of his playing style during training camp in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
“All the guys thought he was going to make it here, the plays he was making in camp and practicing,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “And [when] he got into the games, he did really, really well as well.”
Even with a strong showing and the locker room behind him, Hodges was waived after the final preseason game. Less than two weeks later, though, he sent Johnson a Snapchat from the front seat of his 2007 Chevy truck.
“Your boy’s on his way back to Pittsburgh,” Hodges said, grinning into the camera.
Hodges was on his way to the Birmingham airport for a tryout with the New York Jets when his agent called. The Steelers traded third-string quarterback Josh Dobbs, and they wanted Hodges back for the practice squad. Hodges turned his truck around and headed home to repack. Soon after, he was back on the road to the airport, this time with a flight to Pittsburgh.
A week later, he was elevated to the 53-man roster when Roethlisberger’s elbow surgery put him on season-ending injured reserve.
“There’s no red carpet whatsoever being undrafted, being a quarterback,” offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. “He wears that hat very well, the fact that he knows the opportunities are limited.”
And if he doesn’t start another game after Sunday, he always has the ducks.
During the Steelers’ Week 7 bye, Hodges and his father are headed to Saskatchewan, Canada, to, of course, go duck hunting.