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Stephen Hodge is Tackling the Linebacking Learning Curve

This will be my first year attending the Dallas Cowboys training camp. Once I get past the awe of seeing my favorite star players in real life, I plan on turning my attention to some of the new faces on the team. One intriguing player I will be keeping my eye on is rookie linebacker Stephen Hodge. With the Cowboys looking for a facelift on their special teams coverage units under new ST coach Joe DeCamillis, Hodge certainly has a decent shot at making the final roster. He's going to have to show in training camp though, that he can not only contribute on special teams, but also learn the position of 3-4 inside linebacker.

Hodge was one of five TCU Horned Frogs the Cowboys invited to their "Dallas Day" - the team’s annual visit and workout held for local draft prospects. He was the only one they drafted. His selection in the sixth-round showed the coaching staff’s desire to improve their special teams units through this draft, especially considering he was the team’s next selection after kickoff specialist David Buehler. In college, Hodge was a standout special teams player and a sure tackler from his "safety" position. Last season, he returned a blocked punt for a touchdown against Utah and turned in a very productive (11 tackles, one interception, one sack) Poinsettia Bowl game against Boise State.

Make the jump for more on Hodge.

Hodge tallied eights sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in 2007 - numbers that resemble a linebacker’s stats more than a defensive back’s. Also, his TCU profile has the words "forced fumble" littered throughout the page. As evident by his jersey number (55), the Cowboys are working him in on defense as a reserve linebacker, which according to this article, should not be too different from his position in college.

The safety position Hodge played in TCU's 4-2-5 was akin to an outside linebacker position, so he's accustomed to playing in the box. Hodge pointed out, however, that playing inside will force him to take on more blockers in the middle of the field.

If Hodge and Jason Williams can turn into dependable rookies this year, the Cowboys will have much needed depth at inside linebacker. Third-year man Bobby Carpenter looks to be the incumbent backup behind starters Bradie James and Keith Brooking. Hodge will likely have to win a job over Matt Stewart, Justin Rogers, and Steve Octavien this training camp if he wants to make the team. To do so, the athletic 234-pounder will look to learn from both a rising star and team captain in James, and a five-time Pro Bowler in Brooking.

A quarterback at Tatum and safety at TCU, Hodge has bulked up and was told he'll play middle linebacker for the Cowboys, learning the craft behind established veterans Bradie James and Keith Brooking.

"I've got two good guys in front of me that I can learn from," Hodge said.

Strength is key for inside backers to succeed in Coach Wade Phillips' defense. Hodge won’t be asked to start at ILB anytime soon; so, he has time to get bigger and more importantly, time to learn to shed NFL-sized blockers.

"The main thing I've got to do is learn how to use my hands and get away from them and shed them," Hodge said. "At TCU I would blitz and use my shoulder. Here (in the middle) I can't use my shoulder. It's just going to take time, and I think the Cowboys are willing to give me the time to learn how to play linebacker or they wouldn't have drafted me."

Hodge further discusses his transition to linebacker in this interview on The Blitz.

Because of a knee scope to remove loose cartilage in his left knee, we didn’t get to see Hodge complete the OTAs. He has since been rehabbing the knee and said he will be ready come training camp.

It has been years since the Cowboys drafted and developed some real studs for their special teams coverage units. This season, they can't take the easy way out by re-signing Keith Davis; he's a Raider. Surely, the coaching staff would like to avoid having to sign Band-Aid guys during the regular season, like they had to do last year with Carlos Polk and Tra Battle. Improving the special teams and the overall team depth is what this year's draft was about. If Stephen Hodge turns into a sixth-round gem, it sure would help make this offseason worth the wait.

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