CINCINNATI — In May, just after the 2019 NFL Draft the Steelers invited rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges to their minicamp at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Pittsburgh’s South Side.
Hodges was one of three quarterbacks invited to the three-day camp, and everyone knew that only one would get a job coming out of it. The 6-foot-1 Hodges was matched up against 6-foot-5 Tennessee grad Keller Chryst and 6-foot-3 Eastern Michigan alum Brogran Roback. Hodges came to the Steelers from Samford, an FCS school in north-central Alabama.
He looked like a member of the junior varsity. One reporter and sometimes photographer — this reporter and sometimes photographer — lamented a missed opportunity at getting an action photo.
When asked why by a colleague, I responded, “for the story when he gets cut.”
Until he started to throw. Hodges’ arm strength, accuracy and wherewithal in the pocket outshined his lack of size and resume, and he won the Steelers’ fourth quarterback job. That meant he got to stay through summer OTAs and fall training camp.
But it’s far from a guarantee of more than that. With a future Hall of Famer at the helm and two drafted backups ahead of it, it was far from a guarantee that Hodges would develop into more than an afterthought in his Steelers career.
After all, former fourth quarterbacks Bart Houston (2017), Dustin Vaughan (2016), Tajh Boyd (2015) and John Parker Wilson (2014) haven’t exactly remained a large part of the conversation around the team.
But there was something different about Hodges, and it wasn’t just his history as a national champion duck-caller and the nickname that came with it. When he got chances to show what he could do on the field, he turned heads.
In the Steelers’ first preseason game, he completed 8 of 14 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown. He threw another TD pass in the second game and was given significant playing time in the team’s preseason finale.
Hodges did not make the team’s 53-man roster out of training camp, but he impressed enough that the Steelers started shopping backup Josh Dobbs. They found a suitor in the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sept. 9 and Hodges was back with the team, set up to be the scout-team quarterback and spend the year on the practice squad.
Six days later, Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season with an elbow injury. Hodges was promoted to the active roster. He played in two games when Mason Rudolph suffered a concussion, winning his only start at the Los Angeles Chargers.
So with Rudolph struggling on Sunday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin sat him down and went to his bench, inserting the 23-year-old undrafted rookie with 40 NFL passes to his name with the Steelers trailing on the road in a must-win game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
It’s an idea that’s not as crazy as it sounds. Cleary, as it worked, with Hodges tossing a 79-yard touchdown in the Steelers’ 16-10 comeback win.
But it’s still notable that Tomlin was willing to put a significant portion of his team’s future in the hands of the youngster, a responsibility that was not lost on Hodges.
“It feels great to know the coaches aren’t afraid to call on me,” Hodges said to Steelers Now. “Every time they’ve called on me, I’ve provided, and Coach Tomlin always says, ‘If I ever ring, if I ever dial … answer.’
“That’s something he says to everybody. It’s all just about being a team. Everyone that’s wearing a helmet, each and every week, has to be prepared to do their job.”
It was one game, and one win, albeit an important one. Tomlin hasn’t made public his plans for who will start next week.
The Steelers’ effort on Sunday, while good enough to moved the hapless Bengals to 0-11, probably wouldn’t have beaten any other NFL team. Rudolph or Hodges, whoever runs the offense will need to be better.
But in the meantime, Tomlin’s words about needed them all ring true, and not just all 53 men on the active roster, but the practice squad, the 90 men in training camp, and even the undersized quarterback brought into rookie camp on a tryout.