There are new coaches, new teammates, new systems and new terminology, and rarely is there much time to absorb it all.
That thinking makes what linebacker Stephen Hodge is doing even more impressive. Not only was the rookie drafted in the sixth round and asked to crack linebacker rotation that includes star DeMarcus Ware and veterans Keith Brooking, Bradie James and Anthony Spencer as surefire starters.
Hodge harbored no illusions of cracking the starting rotation; his primary goal is to make the team, first. But he found himself slipping behind in the learning process when he suffered a calf injury during summer OTAs.
“I have no idea,” Hodge said when asked exactly how he was injured. “I know one day we were doing a two-minute drill over there at (Standridge Stadium in Carrollton), and when I got on the bus and got back to the facility, I got off the bus and my leg was kind of stiff. But I didn’t say nothing, and the next day I went to practice, practiced, and I was like, ‘no, it’s hurting too bad — something’s got to be wrong’ so I went in and told them something’s got to be wrong with my knee.
“They went in and scoped it, and (there was) fluid on the knee, and that caused (the calf) to tighten up, but that’s really all it is. There’s just tightness in it, and they’re trying to keep it loose and work me in slowly.”
Hodge missed the rest of OTAs and the team’s final mini-camp, as well as most of the first week of training camp at the Alamodome, working out instead with the team’s trainers while waiting for his injury to heal.
“I feel better than I did that first day (back on the field),” he said. “That first day, I was just out of it, mentally. I don’t know why. I just felt like, ‘OTAs, all over again.’ But once I got back out here and started running around, I’m feeling a lot better about myself. In OTAs, we went over things a lot, but during my time off, I studied and watched film, but it’s different than being out here on the field practicing what I learned and going against the offense that’s running fast.
“I’m still getting treatments, and I’m just doing one-a-day (practices) right now. They’re not going to throw me in the fire and have two-a-days right now — they’re going to get me in there slowly while I work on getting a full recovery.
Hodge said he expected to be eased back into drills, and on defense, he was. But when practice opened Wednesday — his first day back — there he was, running with the first-team kickoff coverage unit.
“I know (special teams coach) Joe (DeCamillis) — he wants me to contribute to the special teams, and I really want to contribute on special teams, because first and foremost, that’s what I love to play — special teams,” Hodge said. “So he’s trying to get me on the field as fast as possible, and he knew he can do it.”
During his time away from the field, Hodge said he knew he risked slipping behind — even behind the other rookie linebackers — and said he tried to compensate for that by increasing his efforts studying.
“I’m not that far back,” he said. “I caught up a little bit, but I’ve still got a lot to learn. Just like all rookies — we’ve all got a lot to learn.
“I’ve stayed in my playbook the whole time, because that’s the only way I’m going to make it. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.”
One of the biggest ramifications of the injury, Hodge said, was the impact it had on the entire team, not just on himself.
“By being hurt, I was hurting the team,” he said. “Like Jason (Williams) — Jason’s taking reps with the twos (second-string linebackers) and the threes (third-team linebackers) because I’m hurt. It’s not fun being out on the sideline at all, but I know I’m not the only one affected by my injury.”