Middle linebacker was a gaping hole in the University at Buffalo defense entering the offseason.
The Bulls graduated senior starter Nick Gilbo and had nobody left behind him.
They wanted someone with experience, but they preferred not to have a quick-fix, two-year transfer. They needed someone who’s a quick study, because the middle linebacker has to make the defensive calls. They preferred to have someone with a little more bulk, because UB’s linebacking corps has been a tad undersized the past couple years.
Khalil Hodge looks like he checks all the boxes for the Bulls.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound sophomore from California stepped into the starting lineup on Day One of spring practice and should be an asset for the Bulls this season.
“He’s been doing a great job,” said UB linebackers coach Chris Simpson. “What was really intriguing about Khalil was both his playing ability and the amount of time we’d be able to have him in the program.”
Hodge is a native of Antioch, Calif., just east of Oakland. He played last fall for the City College of San Francisco, a powerhouse junior college program that produced O.J. Simpson way back in the 1960s.
Hodge didn’t need to go to junior college. He had good grades in high school, but his only scholarship offers were from lower-level Division I programs Weber State and Sacramento State. Hodge thought he could do better.
“I took the risk and opted to go to junior college,” Hodge said. “I had to regroup, take my chances and really just grind. I had to reinvent myself at CCSF, earn a job and prove myself.”
Knowing it had roster holes to fill, UB targeted the California junior colleges. Simpson made four trips to the West Coast over a six-week span late last year. Hodge was a prime objective, but UB wound up with six California transfers in all.
Unlike most Juco transfers, Hodge was able to enroll at UB in January because he was an academic qualifier out of high school. Not only will he be eligible for three years, he benefitted from all the spring and summer workouts.
Hodge is a sociology major who had a 3.2 grade-point average at CCSF. Simpson is happy with his understanding of the Bulls’ scheme so far.
“I think Khalil has really good feet,” Simpson said. “And he’s got some of the same stuff that Nick Gilbo had in terms of that savvy that you can’t really coach. . . . He has some of the intangibles you need to have in that position.”
The Bulls’ defense needed to get a little stouter, too, after ranking 11th in the Mid-American Conference against the run last season. Gilbo gave UB a solid season. But he was 6-foot, 220.
“The thing about the MAC is there’s really going to be a wide range of body types,” Simpson said. “We’re not going to get necessarily the 6-4, 235-pound linebackers who are running 4.6s and 4.5s. You might have to give up a little bit of size for athleticism. Or some athleticism for some size. I think Khalil possesses both of those. He’s got the size to handle things happening in the box, for sure.”
Hodge has a nose for the ball. As a senior at St. Mary’s High in Stockton, Calif., he led the state in tackles with 262 in 14 games, an average of 18.7 a game.
“Shoot, if we can get half of those, that would be fantastic,” Simpson said.
Why didn’t he get more offers? CCSF coach Jimmy Collins thinks Hodge’s size might actually have worked against him amongst coaches focused with pass defense.
“I think what hurt him coming out of high school is he got stereotyped as a big body,” Collins said. “He’s gigantic. But he can play in space. There are times we had him at free safety because of what we were doing schematically. I think you’ll find that sideline to sideline, he’ll make plays.”
“I thought he was one of the biggest recruiting misses I’ve ever seen out of high school,” Collins said.
Hodge chose UB over Idaho in December. Collins thinks he would have had more offers if he stayed in junior college a second season, although the coach doesn’t blame Hodge for wanting to get on with his FBS career as soon as possible.
“If he came back next year, we’re sitting here with the entire Pac-12 in his lap,” Collins said. “All those guys were looking for him for the next class of linebackers. If he stayed, he’s a Pac-12 guy.”
Hodge is a big Oakland Raiders fan. His father played football in junior college and at San Diego State. They were more concerned about finding a good fit than being far away from home.
“Coach Simpson and Coach Leipold had come to my house a few times,” Hodge said. “I wanted to take a trip. It was between Idaho and Buffalo, and I fell in love with the place. I really believe what they’re doing here. . . . My dad and mom are really invested in this. They’ll be in the stands for quite a few games this year.”