IRVING, Tex. - One day of practice with no pads against nobody rookies is hardly the stuff on which NFL résumés are built, but when linebacker took the field with his new team for the first time at the Cowboys’ rookie mini-camp two weeks ago, linebacker Stephen Hodge was singled out by head coach Wade Phillips.
Phillips declared Hodge “one of the early stars of camp,” in large part, Phillips said, because in his first day of coverage drills in a Dallas uniform, Hodge had exactly zero passes completed against him.
When reminded Tuesday at the team’s Optional Team Activity in Carrollton of Phillips’ compliment, Hodge smiled, and admitted that it was premature to heap too much praise on him just yet.
“I think I was just running around lost, like every other rookie out there,” Hodge said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve just got to calm down and play football. That’s what I was doing — trying to calm down and let my instincts come to me.”
Hodge is moving to linebacker after starring as a first-team All-Mountain West Conference safety at TCU, where he was the Horned Frogs’ second-leading tackler in 2008 with 81. He also rushed the passer very effectively from his safety spot — in 2007, his eight quarterback sacks were the highest total in the nation for a defensive back.
Hodge said the position shift is a key element in his ability to cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield in his new role in the Cowboys’ defense.
“I’m just transitioning from safety to linebacker, so I’m not used to really covering tight ends and running backs, which I think is a lot easier for me than covering receivers,” he said. “So now I’m down covering tight ends and running backs, so I think I’ve got a little advantage over them.”
While Hodge appreciated the praise from his new head coach, the biggest event from the rookie mini-camp was, of course, the collapse of the team’s practice facility. Several people were injured, including new Dallas special teams coach Joe DeCamillis, who surprisingly made his return to the practice field Tuesday with brace on his surgically repaired neck.
“That was motivational right there,” Hodge said of DeCamillis. “To see him bounce back from such a severe injury … that just goes to show you that if he can do it, we can do it. So people complaining about hamstrings and knees and ankles — that shouldn’t be a problem for this team. People sometimes complain that they’ve got turf toe, and all that, and to see him pull through that, I think that’s amazing.
"Coach Phillips told us in a meeting that (DeCamillis) is going to be in the special teams meetings, but to see him out here, acting like himself, that’s a good thing. He was yelling and cussing and getting after us, just like he was when he wasn’t hurt, so he’s a big inspiration to us.”
Hodge said DeCamillis’ quick return could have a carryover effect on the Dallas special teams throughout the upcoming season.
“I think it will, because (by returning so quickly, DeCamillis) mainly was telling us special teams was going to be a force,” Hodge said. “When you think of the Cowboys, you’re going to think special teams.
“I played on all four special teams, even when I was a starter as a junior and senior. I just love playing special teams. They (the Dallas coaches) said that’s going to be a big deal for me, so I’m ready to play on all special teams and go as hard as I can.”
While Hodge, said he plans to contribute significantly on special teams, his primary duty still will be on defense, where he said he is starting to feel slightly more comfortable in his new scheme and at his new position, and that although the speed of the pro game is at times intimidating, he thinks he can adjust.
“It’s starting to feel natural, I’m trying to think like a linebacker, but I’m still in that ‘lost’ stage,” said Hodge, who also said Tuesday that he is up to 243 pounds — nine more than the 234 listed on the rosters the team handed out to the media at OTAs. “The terminology — they want me to play the ‘Mo’ and the dime sub-package — so I’m just trying to learn all the positions. It’s going to take me a while, but once I get ’em, I’m going to hit the ground running.
“The defense looked good, but for me, the offense looked super-fast, but I think I’ll catch up — I’ll be OK.”