They were in the process of moving Erin Henderson from weak-side linebacker to the middle of their defense, meaning Hodges had a chance as a rookie to battle for an unsettled position with underwhelming competition.
That Hodges never came close to overtaking Marvin Mitchell (or, before he got hurt, Desmond Bishop) for the Vikings' weak-side linebacker job speaks to what he said was his biggest problem as a rookie: his focus. He played 11 games as a rookie but was mostly confined to special-teams duty, playing just two snaps on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. When Bishop tore his ACL and Hodges only had to beat out Mitchell for playing time, former defensive coordinator Alan Williams said he didn't see enough urgency from the rookie.
Looking back on it now, Hodges can pinpoint the same problems.
"Last year, I don't think I came in as focused (as I should have been)," Hodges said. "I was coming from the combine. I wasn't studying my plays in as much detail as I'm doing this year. I think last year I was focusing on too much instead of focusing on my job."
Hodges said he's come in with a better sense of what's expected of him this season, and he's trying to turn that into more playing time in Year 2 with the Vikings. He received some first-team snaps in minicamp and has gotten occasional work with the top defense during training camp, though the Vikings seem to be happy enough with the progress of first-round pick Anthony Barr that the rookie could take the outside linebacker spot opposite Chad Greenway. The Vikings have worked Hodges at both the strong-side and weak-side linebacker positions, though, and they've seen promise through some of the mistakes he's made in camp.
"The thing I keep thinking -- and I talked to our coaches about this last night -- Gerald is still a young guy, a young developing player that has a lot of athletic ability," coach Mike Zimmer said. "He’s got good punch. He can run. It’s just taking him, and not just him, the other linebackers too, we’re just a little bit off in our alignment, so it causes us to be a little bit slow to where we’re (going). And, obviously, the coverages that we’re playing I think are probably different than what they’ve played in the past. So there’s some things they got to adjust to. That will come."
Hodges, who started his career at Penn State as a safety and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.78 seconds at the combine, has seen some work in the Vikings' top nickel package and should be able to hold up in pass coverage. Both Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards said Hodges' practices were better toward the end of the week, and while his chances of starting appear remote at this point, he learned enough from his experience as a rookie to know he needs to take advantage of any opportunities that come his way this season.
"I made my mind up halfway through the season last year that I needed to turn it up a notch," Hodges said. "I came into this year with a new focus. It's just more studying, being able to recognize plays faster. That's the big thing."