From Samford to the Pittsburgh Steelers: The Long and Complicated Journey of Devlin Hodges

The field is a fickle place. Sometimes you can dominate it. Other times, it can dominate you.

On a day in late December, the commentators on ESPN’s NFL Live are mentioning him in the same breath with the AFC-leading Baltimore Ravens. The same day his name beelines across the ticker on FS1 — “Hodges will likely be the starter” the words read. Staccato mentions of his name will emanate from the mouths of radio personalities all across Rust Belt, America. Tomorrow, he could be an afterthought.

Such is the case for life in the NFL, where only 32 players on the entire planet can claim the coveted position of “starter” and every day you have a target on your back. On average, an NFL starting QB is around 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds and has typically played in college for Power 5 behemoths like Oklahoma, Michigan and Florida State. But for a large part of this season, one of those quarterbacks was a diminutive 6’1, 210-pound graduate of Samford University in Birmingham. His name is Devlin Hodges.

For a while, it seemed as though Hodges might never get a chance to suit up for an NFL team. This past September, he stood on the field at Samford — the wind blowing through this majestic Southern college during a women’s soccer game — and contemplated his future. The Pittsburgh Steelers had just shaved him off their roster and Hodges was back home in Birmingham, filling his oddly blank calendar with people who could offer sage advice, old coaches and the like who could sift through the dust and help him find a way back into football again.

Samford head football coach Chris Hatcher smiled when he saw his former player that night. As Hodges’ college coach, Hatcher witnessed every inch of his 14,584 passing yards — a record in Samford’s division. He’d been there when the trophies hailing his achievements came rolling in, had lent his ear when the NFL Draft decided, like others, that Hodges was too small or simply not good enough or lacked big game experience to want him and celebrated when the Steelers, praise the Lord, finally gobbled him up.

Now the two men were meeting up at a soccer game to talk about what’s next for Hodges. He was only four months into his professional career when he was released by the Steelers. If something didn’t happen soon, it might all come to a crashing halt.

Neither Hodges nor Hatcher believed it would. “In his mind and my mind, too, it was too early to give up,” Hatcher said. “It was a matter of what’s the next step to get back to the NFL.”

There were other options, too. Hodges could always try out for an XFL team, play in Canada. Perhaps the thought of hanging up his cleats and getting a “real job” — schlepping along in some sales gig premeditated for ex-pros — wasn’t really on his radar.

Football or bust

Less than a month after Hodges and Hatcher exchanged that heavy dialogue, Hodges trotted out onto the turf at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, wearing the same black-and-yellow togs once lionized by men like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Jerome Bettis. The former record-setting Samford quarterback was a Pittsburgh Steeler, wearing number 6 and setting hearts afire with his tale of comeuppance.

Hodges had come a long way from the patchwork fields of tiny Kimberly, population 3,173. He was once the small-town star, the country boy who loved hunting and dogs and football; his accent barbed with a one-stoplight twang common to the rural South. Told he was too short for Nick Saban’s team at Alabama, then-head coach Pat Sullivan saw something in him and offered him a scholarship to Samford, just 20 miles from Kimberly as the crow flies.

But success didn’t come instantly. Hodges was redshirted his freshman year and when spring ball came around in 2015, he found himself second on the depth chart. By that time, Sullivan had retired and Samford replaced him with Hatcher, who’d previously been the head coach at Murray State. The new man in charge immediately liked what he saw.

“I just noticed,” Hatcher said, “when we went out to practice for that first spring and he was running with the 2’s. I went and told our offensive coordinator, I said, ‘This guy’s the best quarterback we’ve got.’ It took me about 45 minutes to know the guy’s going to be a really good quarterback.”

But Hatcher’s first impression did not immediately translate into a starting position in the first game of the season against Central Arkansas. That nod went to Michael Eubank, a 6’5, 250-pound redshirt senior from Corona, California, who’d transferred to Samford from Arizona State.

After sitting the bench in the opening game, Hodges took his first college snaps on Sept. 12, 2015, versus Florida A&M late in the third quarter with Samford comfortably ahead. Platooning behind Eubank, Hodges was 10 for 13, passing for 147 yards (tucked neatly inside was a 59-yard strike to Andrew Harris) and his 13-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter sealed the 58–21 win for Samford. But was it enough for a quarterback battle to begin to brew on Lakeshore Drive? The answer soon would be yes.

Hodges’ impressive relief effort against Florida A&M impressed Hatcher enough the next week to name him captain, but not starter, against Louisville. In a 45–3 loss against a much tougher opponent, however, Hodges struggled, tossing 2 INTs and throwing for only 79 yards.

Hatcher went with Eubank the next week against Virginia Military Institute, and Samford rolled up 511 yards of offense while Hodges viewed from the sideline. Then against The Citadel at home, Hatcher employed a two-quarterback system, Eubank and Hodges rotating in at the coach’s behest. As it turns out, Hodges would have the better afternoon — punctuated by an 83-yard laser to Karel Hamilton — and the quarterback battle between Hodges and Eubank had its first cautious separation.

Hodges ended all doubts after hosting a coming-out party the next week in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Against Western Carolina, he was 42 of 61, passing for 399 yards and 3 touchdowns in his first career start.

His to lose

Now with the job his to lose, Hodges unleashed an aerial bombardment. Against Furman, he threw for 281 yards. Against Clark Atlanta, 307. Against Wofford, 348. And against Mercer, 392.

Hodges finished the year with 2,230 yards and 12 TDs against 6 interceptions as Samford posted a 6–5 record (3–4 Southern Conference). It was the program’s fifth straight winning season, and with Hodges at the controls, the future of Samford football was looking mighty fine.

If the year 2015 was considered bearing fruit, Hodges’ sophomore season bore an orchard. His 4,088 yards and 36 touchdowns garnered him First Team All-Southern Conference (SoCon) and the Football Championship Series (FCS) Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Throughout the bulk of his time at Samford, Hodges continued to rack up individual accolades as the Bulldogs steadily improved: 7–5 in 2016 and 8–4 in 2017.

And though Samford took a step back in Hodges’ senior year in 2018, finishing at 6–5, the quarterback was no less impressive, throwing for a career-best 4,283 yards (an average of 389 passing yards per game — best in the nation). Those gaudy numbers helped him edge out Chandler Burks and Easton Stick, quarterbacks at Kennesaw State and North Dakota State, respectively, for the Walter Payton Award — the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy in his division.

In his final game at Samford, Hodges passed Alcorn State’s Steve McNair for most passing yards in FCS history.

“I’m pumped about breaking the all-time passing yards record as well as the other records,” Hodges told the press. “I never dreamed of it to be honest until this past season. I just wanted to go out and play football and I’ve done that every game. I have always known that to win football games I would have to throw the ball and have a lot of yards.”

Lesson in humility

His college career now over, Hodges was thrust into the equivalent of football roulette: the NFL Draft. It turned out to be a lesson in humility.

From April 25 to 27, 2019, the League hosted its draft from Lower Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee, and Hodges was hopeful that one of 32 squads would see his value. But as one round went by, two rounds went by, three rounds went by, four rounds went by, Hodges did not hear his name called. Finally, in the seventh round, when Caleb Wilson was drafted as the 254th pick (the last pick is notoriously referred to as “Mr. Irrelevant”) by the Arizona Cardinals, the draft concluded. Immediately Hodges was bestowed the unpleasant tag of “UDFA”— undrafted free agent — and began the arduous task of finding a roster.

Through all the blackness, a glimmer of hope arrived in the form of two rookie minicamp invitations extended to Hodges, one from the New York Giants and the other from the Pittsburgh Steelers. After trying out with the Giants, Hodges arrived at the Rooney Complex on Pittsburgh’s South Side on May 10 for Steelers rookie minicamp, a weekend affair for first-year players and hopefuls like Hodges. At the end of the camp, Hodges inked a free agent contract with the Steelers.

Hodges ingratiated himself with members of the team such that they started calling him by his “Duck” nickname. Hatcher gave Hodges the nickname after he heard about the national duck calling championship Hodges won as a child.

“Lots of times as a QB, if your nickname’s Duck, that’s usually not a good thing,” Hodges told TribLive. “But I’ve come to realize I think it’s something that fits me.”

Hatcher told TribLive, “‘Devlin’ was just hard for me to say all the time. … So he got talking about (his duck-calling skills) … and I said, ‘Man, I just am gonna start calling you Duck.’ And it kinda stuck.”

At the time, the Steelers seemed optimistic about their fourth string quarterback, as Hodges drew praise from offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and head coach Mike Tomlin.

“The moments out here haven’t been too big for him,” Tomlin told the press during fall camp.

Chris Adamski, who covers the Pittsburgh Steelers for TribLive, said that Hodges looked “comfortable” in situational offense. Perhaps it all wasn’t just a dream.

Vying for the opportunity

When the Steelers began their exhibition schedule on Aug. 9 against Tampa Bay, Hodges sat on the depth chart behind Mason Rudolph and Josh Dobbs (because starter and longtime veteran Ben Roethlisberger saw limited preseason action, the bulk of preseason snaps under center were taken by backups). No one in Pittsburgh or elsewhere doubted that Roethlisberger was the starter, but the order of backups was still up for grabs.

Against the Buccaneers, Hodges connected on 8 of 14 passes for 79 yards — a good start to his professional career. At home the next week against Kansas City, Hodges threw his first touchdown pass, a 24-yarder to Diontae Johnson late in the fourth quarter. And in the team’s last preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, he was 10 for 20 for 73 yards.

At the time, Hodges was in uncomfortable but not unfamiliar territory. He’d been a backup before and hoped that if he kept his nose to the grindstone and kept plugging away, good things would happen.

But instead the Steelers waived him on Aug. 31. On the way out the door, the team encouraged him to continue working out, because “you never know what can happen.”

Hodges, now jobless, migrated south to Birmingham.

Back at home, Hodges looked for things to do. One night, he watched the LSU–Texas game with his high school football coach from Mortimer Jordan, Dusty Goode. He sat out by his parents’ pool. He mowed the lawn. He worked out. He met up with Coach Hatcher at the Samford soccer game. He played with the family dog, a lab named Angus.

For many players, this is the point where the carousel stops. As it turns out, Hodges’ carousel hadn’t begun.

While Hodges was enjoying the mild frills of Birmingham, on Sept. 9, Pittsburgh traded Josh Dobbs to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a fifth-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft (the Jaguars depth chart had thinned after starter Nick Foles suffered a broken clavicle in Week 1). Hodges was called up the next day.

You never know what can happen

“It was a nice little week home, but I’m definitely glad to be back and be around the group of guys that we got in this locker room,” Hodges told SteelersNow.

Five days later, Roethlisberger, the face of the franchise for the last 16 seasons, aggravated his elbow in the first half of the game against Seattle and was out until further notice. Rudolph, who had clawed his way to the top of the Steelers’ depth chart, played the balance of the second half and was 12 for 19 for 112 yards in a losing effort.

Pittsburgh had dropped its first game against New England and was now 0–2 and searching for answers.

In the meantime, Roethlisberger sought out opinions on his elbow and eventually settled for surgery, which was to be performed on Sept. 23. Scrambling to find able bodies in Big Ben’s absence, Pittsburgh signed Paxton Lynch, a former first-round draft choice out of Memphis who’d been waived by the Seahawks.

Through the next two games, Rudolph showed improvement, and his 24 of 28 passing effort helped the Steelers pick up the team’s first win of the season against Cincinnati on Sept. 30. The following week against Baltimore, however, Rudolph was concussed by Ravens safety Earl Thomas III in the third quarter of a tight game.

Out trotted the pride of Samford, Hodges, who promptly directed the Steelers down the field for the go-ahead score.

The unlikeliest of candidates to become an NFL hero, Hodges would finish the game — an overtime affair The Baltimore Sun writer Jonas Shaffer tabbed as “Weird, wild, but a win — but the Ravens ultimately came out on top on a 46-yard field goal by Justin Tucker.

When the Steelers traveled to Los Angeles to face the Chargers the next week, Rudolph was still recovering from the concussion while Hodges anticipated his first pro start. Needing to find a proper memento for the occasion, Hodges lucked into one at a store in Venice Beach — a $5 T-shirt that read, “I’m the Boss.”

Above the writing was a picture of a duck.

Duck’s first NFL start

At Dignity Health Sports Park, Hodges was sharp, going 15 for 20 in a 24–17 Steelers win. So comfortable was he under center that Hodges even joked with his teammates in the huddle. Alluding to how well Steelers fans had traveled, Hodges said, “I might have to motion for the crowd to quiet down.”

“It’s nice,” Hodges said after the game, “to get a win in my first start. It’s something I have always dreamed about. I’ve always had a belief in myself and it’s just amazing.”

A bye week allowed Rudolph to recover from his concussion and gave Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin time to think about who his quarterback would be against the winless Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field. Tomlin eventually decided on Rudolph, who threw an interception on Pittsburgh’s first possession but settled down to pitch for 251 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Rudolph’s play pleased Tomlin enough for Rudolph to remain the starter for the next three games — all wins — as Hodges watched from afar. No one was expecting the cataclysmic events of Nov. 14 in Cleveland when the Steelers met the Browns.

With Pittsburgh trailing 21–7 late in the fourth quarter, Rudolph threw a screen pass to Trey Edmunds, who scooted to the sideline for what seemed to be an innocuous first down. But erupting near the goal line was a scrum between Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and Rudolph. Garrett had wrestled Rudolph to the ground and in the process ripped off the quarterback’s helmet, which he held in his hand like an ancient barbarian would a severed head. Helmetless, Rudolph furiously charged back at Garrett — almost like a child who’d had a toy stolen from him — and Garrett swung the helmet at him in roundhouse fashion, connecting with the Steelers’ quarterback’s unprotected head.

The aftermath was ugly. Garrett was suspended for the balance of the 2019 season and playoffs and was fined just north of $45,000. Fortunately, Rudolph wasn’t seriously injured, but the melee did provide enough of a distraction that probably impacted him the next week against the terrible Cincinnati Bengals.

While Rudolph struggled, Hodges made the most out of his opportunity. Inserted in the second half, his team trailing 7–3, Hodges loaded up and found James Washington on a 79-yard touchdown pass to take the lead. The Steelers would eventually eke out a 16–10 win and were suddenly looking like a playoff team at 6–5.

Tomlin stuck with Hodges for the next two games against Cleveland and Arizona, both wins, and Duck was now 3–0 as a starting quarterback. Against Arizona, he was blazing hot, going 16 for 19 for 152 yards and a touchdown. The Steelers were now 8–5 and three games behind the first place Ravens in the AFC North.

By then, Duck mania had reached a fever pitch. A video was posted on Duck Commander’s Twitter page featuring Si Robertson from the TV show Duck Dynasty. “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!” Robertson said.

Others brought duck calls into the stadium.

No rest for the weary

But in the NFL, there is no rest for the weary — or the winners. Spoiling Hodges’ luxurious living were the upstart Buffalo Bills, whom the Steelers faced at home in Week 15. To Hodges the Bills defense was particularly harsh, intercepting him four times and limiting the Steelers offensive attack to 10 measly points. With a 17–10 loss, all of the hopes for a magical season in Pittsburgh seemed to deflate, and it was back to the drawing board for Tomlin and Hodges.

Back in Birmingham, Coach Hatcher had been waiting to talk to Duck, who’d become uber popular near the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela. Fortunate to get him on the phone after the loss to the Bills, Hatcher was able to give him a bit of advice.

“He had everybody wanting to talk to him after he started 3–0, but I’m sure there wasn’t quite as many people calling him after they took that defeat this week,” Hatcher said. “I told him to keep his head up, to keep on chunking it, man, and go try to beat the Jets this week.”

Unfortunately, it was much of the same against the Jets. At MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Hodges was yanked after he threw two picks and replaced by Rudolph. However, Rudolph went down with a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter and Duck was back in the game with a chance to win it, trailing 16–10 with the ball at the Jets 44-yard line. Facing third down and seven, Hodges chucked a pass into the end zone intended for receiver James Washington, but Jets safety Marcus Maye batted it down to bring up fourth down. Hodges’ last attempt at glory fell incomplete and the Steelers dropped their second game in a row.

“I’m still going to be confident. I can’t let these things get to me. You’ve got to learn from them. I’ve got the job done before and I just have to do it again,” Hodges told the Associated Press after the game.

Since Rudolph was placed on injured reserve after the game, the Steelers’ playoff hopes, still alive but on life support, rested on the shoulders of Devlin Hodges of Kimberly.

Playing for the wild card contender spot

To squeak into the playoffs as an AFC wild card contender, Pittsburgh needed a win at Baltimore and for the Houston Texas to defeat the Tennessee Titans. There was reason to be optimistic: the Ravens were sitting several starters, including All-Pro quarterback Lamar Jackson, and the Texans had won four out of their last five.

Despite the whirlwind at quarterback and his own on-the-field struggles, Hodges was starting for fifth consecutive game. Prior to the Ravens game, Tomlin stressed to reporters that he was satisfied with Hodges’ attitude and approach, but implored him to do a better job protecting the football. Although his completion percentage was over 60%, Hodges had thrown a total of 8 interceptions on the year and 6 in the last two games.

Still Hodges could salvage a season that could have gone seriously awry. Few anticipated Pittsburgh being on the doorstep of the postseason when Roethlisberger went down in September. But while the offense thrived then languished, the defense had been solid virtually all year. Now the final week of the regular season would determine if a former undrafted free agent who wasn’t even on the roster in early September could lead the Steelers to the playoffs.

For a moment, it appeared possible. After two Ravens field goals to start the game, Hodges directed a 10-play, 75-yard drive, capped off by a 4-yard touchdown run by Bennie Snell that put the Steelers up 7–6. Another field goal by the Ravens made it 9–7 in favor of Baltimore, and on the ensuing possession Hodges fumbled after he was sacked at his own 34. Baltimore recovered and punched it in to take a 16–7 lead just before the half.

In the second half, Pittsburgh climbed to within 6 after a Ravens fumble, but the fourth quarter was virtually all Baltimore. A field goal, a touchdown and a safety on Hodges gave the Ravens a 28–10 victory.

In the end, Hodges did not finish the season with his best day. Though he avoided throwing an interception against the NFL’s fourth stingiest defense (300.6 ypg), he was 9 for 25, passing for only 95 yards. The Steelers finished the season at 8–8 — good enough for 2nd in the AFC North Division — but missed the playoffs.

The dynasty needs it Duck

After the game, various news outlets assessed Hodges performance and future:

Geoffrey Benedict of “So while Hodges was efficient at converting reasonable situations for first downs, he was never a QB that was making big plays, and he was a QB that was making big mistakes.”

Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “…Hodges might be on thinner ice given the way he ended the season.”

Matthew Marczi of Steelers Depot: “But players typically see their biggest growth from year one to year two. We saw that in Rudolph. We saw it in Joshua Dobbs. If Hodges can build off of what he learned in 2019, he should be able to retain his place in this league.”

That’s the story as told from Pittsburgh. But Birmingham provides a different side to the tale. A campus and a coach, is swelling with pride as a former Samford player makes his bones in the NFL.

“The way it all transpired, there’s no question it’s unique,” Hatcher said. “You’re undrafted. You don’t get a free agent contract. You go through a rookie tryout. You make the team. You get cut. You get called back on the practice squad. You get moved up to the regular squad and about a month later, you’re the starting quarterback in the NFL. It’s hard to make up a story like that.”

Whatever happens from here is anyone’s guess. Does Hodges remain in Pittsburgh? Could another team pick him up if the Steelers decide to part ways again?

In a league that’s still healing, Hodges was the feel-good story of  the last season. And hopefully, we’ll see more of Hodges.

After all, the dynasty does not have the same ring to it without the Duck.