The Steelers' run to an 8-5 record and wild-card playoff contention without Ben Roethlisberger may be the most improbable story of the 2019 season. Another improbability is who led them to their past three wins: Devlin "Duck" Hodges, who took over for an ineffective Mason Rudolph in Week 12 against Cincinnati.
Hodges is the first undrafted rookie QB to win his first three NFL starts in a non-strike season. The Duck was a four-year starter at Samford, but he was hardly anonymous there -– he won the Walter Payton Award in 2018 as the most outstanding offensive player at the FCS level -– and set the FCS record for career passing yards (14,584). Hodges has thrown for just a touch over 15,000 yards in his collegiate and professional careers, so with that in mind, here are 15 things to know about the Steelers' cult hero.
What’s in a (nick)name
Hodges earned his “Duck” moniker while at Samford, owing to his skill as a duck caller. He has receipts to back up his reputation, too. Hodges won the 2009 Junior World Duck Calling Contest at age 13 as well as the 2018 Alabama State Duck Calling Championship. Steelers fans have taken to Hodges like a duck ... oh, never mind. Yes, many of them have brought their own duck calls into Heinz Field.
He almost played for Brett Favre’s alma mater
Hodges was not completely unknown when it came to his college recruitment. The self-described “gunslinger” nearly went to the same school, Southern Mississippi, as the NFL’s most famous gunslinger, before changing his commitment to Samford in Birmingham, Alabama. Believe it or not, Alabama, where five-star recruits roam, had off-and-on interest in Hodges.
He shredded the FCS with Samford
Hodges’ numbers in college were eye-popping: As a redshirt freshman, he threw for 2,230 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine games. Then the Duck took flight, throwing for 12,354 yards and 99 touchdowns in his next three seasons. Hodges was named the Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year three times.
His college offense? The Air Raid, of course
Gardner Minshew, now the Jaguars' starting QB as a rookie, got all the Air Raid hype playing for Mike Leach at Washington State, but Hodges ran the same system at Samford. Hodges’ college coach, Chris Hatcher, was quarterbacks and wide receivers coach under Hal Mumme at Kentucky. Mumme, not Leach, is actually responsible for creating the Air Raid system.
He put up huge numbers on Florida State in 2018
Florida State isn’t what it used to be, but it's still Florida State, and Samford is still Samford. That didn’t stop Hodges from going into Tallahassee and nearly springing a massive upset. He threw for 475 yards and two touchdowns against the Seminoles, including a 54-yard touchdown on Samford’s first play. His four interceptions were a major factor, though, in Florida State's 36-26 win.
The NFL had virtually no use for him
Many late-round picks and undrafted free agents have gone on to have solid, and sometimes spectacular, careers (see Brady, Tom, sixth round 2000 NFL Draft). Hodges was so far off the NFL’s radar that the Steelers were the only team to show even marginal interest in him. Hodges impressed enough during rookie camp and training camp for the Steelers to keep him around. But he eventually was cut in favor of Josh Dobbs, Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick in 2017.
The Jets nearly plucked him away from Pittsburgh
Hodges had a tryout scheduled with the Jets and was en route to the airport when he received a call that the Steelers had traded Dobbs to Jacksonville. They wanted Hodges to join their practice squad. It was fortuitous timing for the Steelers. Had Hodges made it to New York, perhaps the legend of Duck would never gotten off the ground.
He was a major bargain for the Steelers
How off the radar was Hodges? His signing bonus with Pittsburgh was $1,000. That's about the price of 66 duck leg small plates at the Point Brugge Cafe in the Steel City. Hodges has since earned a contract that will pay him just over $1 million dollars for two seasons, but in a sport where signing bonuses are often eight figures, the Steelers are getting incredible bang for their buck(shot). Arrgh.
He has become fast friends with James Washington
Washington and Hodges have hooked up for several big plays so far this season, with their 79-yard scoring connection in Cincinnati possibly rescuing the Steelers’ season. They’re also hunting pals in their downtime, as Washington has accompanied Hodges on duck hunts. There is an awkward component to this friendship: Washington and Rudolph were college teammates at Oklahoma State but have displayed zero on-field chemistry in the NFL.
His legs are his secret weapon
Hodges isn’t particularly fast, a reason he probably was so far off the NFL's radar. But he has proven to be a capable runner. Four of his 18 carries this season have gone for first downs, and he has two scrambles of over 20 yards.
Mike Tomlin wasn’t heaping praise on him ... at first
When the Steelers’ head coach was asked about his expectations for Hodges heading into his second career start, against the Browns, he said, “I expect him to not kill us.” Whether Tomlin was really that leery about Hodges potential for disaster, or just playing possum, it was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Duck's abilities.
He has a very famous fan
It probably comes as no surprise that a champion duck caller turning the NFL on its ear has caught the attention of a “Duck Dynasty” star. Silas “Uncle Si” Robertson of the former A&E hit took time to give Hodges a shout-out recently. "Hey, I used to be a Saints fan, but look, I heard the good news. The Steelers have got a duck for a quarterback. Go get em’ Duck!" he posted on Tweeter, er, Twitter.
He won over his teammates by torching them in training camp
Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree, among other Black and Gold defenders, was effusive in his praise of Hodges before his most recent victories, telling stories of Hodges strafing the first-team defense in training camp, and chirping –- OK, maybe quacking –- at them. Steelers players, in fact, praised Hodges’ abilities before his first start, way back in Week 6 against the Chargers.
He almost knocked off the Ravens
Baltimore could easily be a game worse and the Steelers still angling for an AFC North title thanks to Duck’s work in relief of a concussed Rudolph in Week 5. Hodges led the Steelers to a touchdown on his first NFL drive, hitting two passes for 27 yards. In overtime, Hodges had the Steelers driving and perhaps 20 yards away from a winning field goal, but JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled away their chance at victory. Overall, the Duck's stats are impressive: 71.3 completion percentage, 682 yards passing and a 103.2 passer rating (league average is 91.2).
What he lacks in measurables, he makes up for in moxie
Here's what Yardbarker’s Matt Williamson, a former NFL scout, told me about Hodges: “He’s not very gifted, especially as a thrower, but he is confident and believes in himself.” And how is he different from the man he replaced? “He’s making throws that Rudolph wasn’t pulling the trigger on against single coverage and hasn’t killed the team … yet.”
Perhaps Duck is not all he's quacked up to be.
Stop! Make it stop!