PITTSBURGH — Perhaps no city enjoys a quarterback mania like this city.
Take the former “camp arm” who’s risen to first-team status this week.
“Hey, Duck, I talked to your college coach and he said ...”
“Duck, I spoke with your high school coach today and ...”
“Duck, I talked to your mom --”
“My mom?!” said a surprised Devlin Hodges amid a mob of reporters surrounding his locker following Wednesday’s practice.
“Yes. She told me you never get nervous. Is that true?”
Hodges went on to explain that, “When it comes to football, I always prepare like I’m going to be the guy. I think that’s why when I was thrown out there I wasn’t nervous. I was prepared and confident. I have a lot of belief in myself. The nerves are still there. I might just do a better job of hiding them.”
He hid them well last Sunday afternoon after Mason Rudolph was knocked out and helped off the field following a brutal helmet blast to the jaw by Ravens safety Earl Thomas.
Rudolph was the No. 2 quarterback filling in for injured Ben Roethlisberger. Former No. 3 quarterback Joshua Dobbs had been traded. It was Duck’s turn.
“We call him JaMarcus Duck,” Maurkice Pouncey said in speaking for the offensive line. “All camp people kept saying ‘Hey Duck, Hey Duck, Hey Duck.’ Hell, I thought his last name was Duck. So when he was wearing one of those long black sleeves one day, we thought he needed a black first name, so we call him JaMarcus. JaMarcus Duck.”
“Yeah, you know those sleeves,” Pouncey said to the confused reporter. “It’s a black thing.”
Pouncey laughed, but he isn’t laughing about Hodges’ ability. He and the line are confident in the all-time FCS leader in passing yardage. Hodges passed the late, great Steve McNair on the all-time list during his senior season at Samford, a Division 1-AA program just north of Birmingham, Alabama, near Hodges’ hometown of Kimberly.
Duck — who earned the nickname from his state championship duck-calling days — had always wanted to play at Alabama, but Nick Saban deemed the 6-1, 210-pounder too small.
So Hodges committed to Southern Miss, decommitted to play for former Heisman winner Pat Sullivan at Samford, and a year later was playing for new coach Chris Hatcher and his version of college football’s “Air Raid” passing attack known as the “Hatch Attack.”
It wasn’t so much all of those pass-game revolutionaries who were involved with Hatcher that helped advance Hodges to the NFL. It was J.P. Rooney, son of Steelers scout Dan Rooney Jr. and grandson of the late Steelers owner.
J.P. works on the Samford football support staff as a student and became a fan of the team’s record-setting quarterback. J.P. passed Hodges’ name along to his father, who checked with college scouting coordinator Phil Kreidler to see if they should look into Hodges.
But Kreidler had already watched at least one tape of Hodges. The Duck had masterminded a comeback win for Samford over Kreidler’s beloved alma mater, Furman, and Kreidler had already been won over by Hodges’ grit. So he waved Rooney Jr. on, and he and another Steelers scout, Mark Gorscak, dined with Hodges and other Samford seniors the night before their 2019 pro day.
Hodges threw at two pro days that next day last March: Samford and UAB. And he threw well. So, after Hodges went undrafted and unsigned a month later, the Steelers invited him to tryout at their rookie minicamp. There, he beat out two other QBs to earn a spot on the Steelers 90-man roster.
And that begat the 53-man roster when Dobbs was traded.
And that begat the starting 11 when Rudolph suddenly went down.
“We looked over and saw him rocking back and forth, bobbing his head along to a song over the PA system,” Pouncey said. “I said, ‘Well, OK, he looks ready to go.’ And then he got in the huddle and seemed fine. Then he changed the protection up front before his first pass and we were like, ‘All right. He knows what he’s doing.’ That’s when we began to realize we can win with this guy.”
Hodges completed a third-and-8 pass to fellow rookie Diontae Johnson for a first down, and then hit Vance McDonald with a bootleg pass for 14 yards to set up James Conner’s 1-yard touchdown run and a Steelers lead with 3:42 left in the third quarter.
The Steelers eventually lost in overtime after JuJu Smith-Schuster had a pass completion at the Pittsburgh 45 punched free for a turnover. But even in the loss, Hodges earned the confidence of the team by completing 7 of 9 passes for 68 yards and a solid 98.2 passer rating.
He also earned the confidence of his coach, Mike Tomlin, who’s run Hodges at first team both practices this week and called his team the “FCS Ballers” during preparations for Sunday night’s game in Los Angeles against the Chargers.
Rudolph also practiced, but on a limited basis. He’s in the NFL’s concussion protocol and teammates say he’s feeling fine. But Rudolph can’t play unless he passes the test of an independent neurological consultant on Saturday.
When asked if Hodges would start Sunday night, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner wouldn’t commit, but it’s likely that he will.
“Duck looked pretty good today,” Fichtner said after Thursday’s practice. “He’s no stranger to the forward pass. He likes to throw the ball and I don’t think he’s ever met a pass he doesn’t like. He had a good day. He looked comfortable. Just keep going from there.”
Fichtner said Hodges “is a lot like Mason. He loves the game. It’s hard to kick him out of the building, and he keeps his ears open and his mouth shut.”
“He and Mason are like the same dude,” said Pouncey. “They hang out together and they’re always watching film. We all like both of them.”
Does the veteran O-line like Hodges enough to invite him to their weekly Thursday night dinner?
“Oh, he’s already been invited,” Pouncey said. “But he doesn’t show up. He’s always staying late to watch film. One of these weeks we hope he’ll show up.”
The Steelers need Hodges to show up Sunday night because their season is running on fumes at 1-4.
Yes, the schedule eases following the seventh-week bye, but the Steelers are almost out of time. They need seasoning on their unseasoned quarterbacks, and they need it Sunday night.
“It’s just crazy. It’s a crazy process,” said Hodges. “Even from the beginning, coming here on a tryout. I told some people before, that if five years from now, or 10 years, if I am still playing in the NFL, this whole kind of story just fits who I am. It just shows that with hard work and confidence in yourself and belief in yourself, you can accomplish your dreams.”
You can even create a mania — Duck Mania — especially in Pittsburgh.
NOTES — Hodges and/or Rudolph can expect to be without the services of WR James Washington, who confirmed that he’ll miss Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury. Washington doesn’t expect to miss much more than that. ... CB Mike Hilton confirmed that he left Thursday’s practice with an injured ankle after coming down with an interception. Hilton limped away but said he’s fine and that he’ll play Sunday. ... Also missing Thursday’s practice were TE Vance McDonald (shoulder), RB Jaylen Samuels (knee), FB Rosie Nix (knee), ILB Mark Barron (hamstring), and Ramon Foster (day off). Samuels will miss the next month. ... CB Steven Nelson (groin) and OLB T.J. Watt (knee) dressed but were limited in practice.