PSU's Hodges, Hill ready for leading roles

April, 16, 2012
4/16/12
9:09
AM ET

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- New Penn State coach Bill O’Brien reiterates he has not watched and will not watch one frame of film from the team’s 2011 season.

That's not necessarily good news for Nittany Lions defenders Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. Both men could splice together some impressive highlight reels from last fall.

Hodges, an outside linebacker, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches in his first full season as a starter, leading Penn State with 106 tackles, including 10 for loss and 4.5 sacks, and adding two forced fumbles and an interception. Hill was somewhat overshadowed by fellow Lions defensive tackle Devon Still, the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year, but he had a fine season in his own right, recording 59 tackles, including eight for loss and 3.5 sacks, to go along with a team-high three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.

Both men could have bolted for the NFL draft, but both decided fairly early on that they'd return to Penn State and play for a coach who didn't care about what they had done in the past.

"I'm pretty sure [the coaches] heard about my style of play," Hodges told ESPN.com. "But I still feel it's my job to prove myself to them that I can play football, let them know as a man that I can play."

Hodges and Hill both are delivering the right messages this spring to the new coaching staff. O'Brien on Friday called Hodges "what you'd picture in a Penn State linebacker" and said Hodges has had one of the better springs on the squad. O'Brien told ESPN.com last week of Hill: "Excellent player, plays extremely hard and is technically sound."

The two seniors anchor a front defensive front seven that undoubtedly will be the team's strength in the first year of the new regime.

Both men have made position switches this spring that allow them to operate in more space. Hill is playing more at the 3-technique after spending most of last season at the nose (Still played the 3-technique). Rather than lining up over the ball, Hill is looking to shoot gaps between guards and tackles. Hill acknowledges the 3-technique is more of a glamor spot for defensive tackles.

At only 6-1, he’s able to keep his pads low and gain leverage against taller offensive linemen. He's also facing more 1-on-1 blocks, which he welcomes.

"You're playing against these big 6-7 guys, and they can’t reach you sometimes,” Hill said. "It's really an advantage at nose guard, too, because you're playing against 6-5, 6-6 centers and guards. They come at you on a double team, and if you're already at their hips, it's much easier."

Hill has played alongside elite defensive tackles throughout his time at Penn State. As a young player, he studied Jared Odrick, the Big Ten’s co-defensive player of the year in 2009 and a first-round pick in the 2010 draft. He spent last season lined up next to Still, a consensus All-American.

Although Hill is a different type of tackle than Odrick and Still, both of whom stand four inches taller, he took away traits from both. Odrick's motor never stopped, while Still’s drive in his final season made him a different player.

"It's definitely in the back of your head because you want to keep the defensive line moving, that tradition," Hill said. "As a defensive line, we're all one. If individual success comes from it, it’s because of the guys right next to me. Even with Dev's great success, he had an extraordinary year, [but] without Jack [Crawford], Eric [Latimore], me, that's not possible.

"It's the whole defensive line's effort."

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Rob Christy/US PresswireGerald Hodges will move from weakside linebacker to the strong side in 2012.
Hodges, who began his Penn State career as a safety, moves from weakside linebacker to the strong side. Like Hill, Hodges' new position allows him to play more in space, a change he welcomes.

And like Hill, Hodges is aware of the tradition at his position at Linebacker U. He's not the first Penn State standout linebacker to shift to the strong side.

"Navorro [Bowman], Sean [Lee] and Paul [Posluszny], those guys, their last years they finally got to play strong side," Hodges said. "As guys' careers move to the end here, their last year, their last two years, they get moved to the strong side and are able to play out in space.

"It's something I take personally and something I take pride in."

Both Hodges and Hill have stood out this spring as Penn State absorbs a different defense under coordinator Ted Roof. Pass coverage will be a bigger emphasis for Hodges, who nearly picked off a short pass in a recent practice.

"Even though he had a great season last year, he's still hungry," middle linebacker Glenn Carson said. "He still wants to get better. That's the one thing that's going to make him a great football player."

Carson sees similar qualities in Hill.

"I'm seeing things from him on tape that you're just wowed by," Carson said. "He's an unbelievable athlete and just like Gerald, he's a hard worker. He's really hungry, chasing his dreams."

With Hodges and Hill leading the defense, Penn State can dream big in 2012.

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