PITTSBURGH (AP) — Devlin Hodges has nothing to lose. He knows he’s always been considered too something — too short, too small, too unknown, too average — to carry the burden that comes with high expectations.
Yet rather than make him angry, it’s freed him.
The 23-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback knows he’s not supposed to be here. That most undrafted rookie free agents signed as “camp arms” evaporate at cutdown day no matter how well they perform, most likely never to be heard from again.
It’s a path Hodges seemed destined to follow when the Steelers released him on the last day of August despite an auspicious summer in which he surprised teammates and coaches at nearly every turn by playing with a fearlessness that was equal parts endearing and effective.
Fast forward three months, however, and Hodges is still here. Still competing. Still impressing and — because of a combination of injuries, persistence and more than a little swagger — now an unlikely starting quarterback after coach Mike Tomlin nudged the player known as “Duck” to the top of the depth chart in place of struggling Mason Rudolph.
“No one probably thought I'd ever be in this situation,” Hodges said Wednesday. “There's probably just a select few in my corner that thought that.”
Tomlin pointed to the fact that Hodges “didn’t kill us” during a season-turning road victory at the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 13 — when Hodges was pressed into action while Rudolph dealt with a concussion — as one of the reasons he is turning to Hodges for Sunday’s pivotal rematch with Cleveland (5-6). Yet Tomlin stressed the move was for one game only, adding “we’ll worry about next week next week.”
That’s fine by Hodges. Asked if the stakes feel higher for him this time because there’s a chance it could lead to him claiming the job down the stretch, the easygoing kid who has a side gig as a competitive duck caller shrugged.
“The only thing I'm going to do is do whatever it takes to get the win,” Hodges said in his Alabama drawl. “That's all that matters this week is getting a win and then we'll go from there.”
Hodges played steadily if not spectacularly against Los Angeles, throwing for 132 yards with a touchdown and an interception, most of his 15 completions coming on underneath routes to running backs or tight ends. With the offense sputtering in Cincinnati last Sunday, Tomlin pulled Rudolph in favor of Hodges in the third quarter. On his third snap, Hodges found a streaking James Washington in the middle on a pass that Washington turned into a go-ahead 79-yard touchdown.
The rest of the game was a mixed bag at best. Hodges, however, took care of the ball and let the running game and Pittsburgh’s resurgent defense do most of the work. It’s a formula that the Steelers believe can help them erase the bad taste of a 21-7 beatdown by the Browns two weeks ago that ended in an ugly brawl between Rudolph and Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett.
Now Rudolph will spend Sunday on the sideline watching Hodges go to work while Garrett remains suspended indefinitely for hitting Rudolph in the head with Rudolph’s own helmet. Enter Hodges, who went duck hunting with Washington after learning he was elevated to starter.
“It’s a nice getaway from football,” Hodges said. “Just kind of clear my mind and have a good time.”
He always does, one of the reasons he’s fit in on a team littered with players like him who arrived in anonymity but carved out a niche through a mixture of talent, determination and maybe a dash of luck.
“He has this, 'I want to prove that I can play in this league' and I love it,’” said guard Ramon Foster, an 11-year veteran who made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2008. “That's what this league is built on. It's a lot of low round, undrafted guys that are making their way.”
Cleveland coach Freddie Kitchens called Hodges “an NFL quarterback.” It’s a descriptor that seemed far-fetched at best last spring when the draft came and went and Hodges’ phone didn’t ring despite a standout career at Samford, where he set a Football Championship Subdivision record by throwing for 14,585 yards.
Pittsburgh offered him a contract in May following a tryout. Hodges caught the eye of Ben Roethlisberger with the way he attacked every opportunity during camp, opportunities that arose frequently as Roethlisberger took off every third day in hopes of keeping his 37-year-old right arm healthy. The cautious approach didn’t stop Roethlisberger’s season from ending in Week 2 due to an elbow injury.
The Steelers somehow have remained in the postseason mix. And on Sunday they’ll turn to a player who can become more than a feel-good story about the virtues of perseverance.
Consider Roethlisberger a believer. The two-time Super Bowl winner pulled Hodges aside on Wednesday and offered a bit of advice that might as well double as Hodges’ everyday mantra.
“He told me, 'Hey, you can do this, just be yourself, and be Duck,’” Hodges said.
NOTES: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster was cleared of the concussion protocol by an independent neurologist but missed practice due to a knee injury. ... RB James Conner (shoulder) and CB Artie Burns (knee) also did not practice.