As the mike linebacker and defensive signal caller, University at Buffalo's Khalil Hodge has to be aware of everything on the field. He says he's like the defensive quarterback. Hodge gets the play from the sidelines, reads the offensive set and adjusts the defense accordingly.
Once the ball is snapped, he has a split second to make a decision, find the ball carrier and force him to the ground. The junior linebacker makes it look so easy.
"Open a gap for Khalil and he'll make a play," defensive lineman Justin Brandon said.
In his second year with the Bulls, Hodge has developed into one of the top ball-hawking linebackers in the country. He's second in Division I football in tackles per game, trailing only San Diego State's Frank Ginda.
"He's very instinctive," UB coach Lance Leipold said. "With his size and his sense for the ball and, really, just his approach to playing linebacker, I remember (linebackers coach) Chris Simpson saying he's a mike linebacker. It didn't take long."
Last week, Hodge's consistent production culminated in him accomplishing a goal he's inched toward over his two seasons at UB.
In his first year, Hodge came painfully close to breaking UB's FBS-era record for tackles in a season. He finished with 123, two shy of the program high set in 2008. As he worked on his speed this summer, he eyed that mark. Going into the season, gaining ownership of the record was his No. 1 objective.
Hodge didn't just pass 125 this year. He did it with two games left on the schedule. He made four solo and six assisted tackles in the Bulls' 38-28 victory against Bowling Green last Tuesday, pushing him to 129 on the season.
"When you shoot for something and you get to achieve it, it definitely means something," Hodge said. "It means some of your hard work paid off."
Hodge's eye for the ball is nothing new. His senior year of high school, he put up a breathtaking 262 tackles at St. Mary's in Stockton, Calif.
Even with those impressive numbers, Hodge was overlooked by Division I programs. He received two DI-AA offers, but instead decided to bet on himself. He chose to go to nearby City College of San Francisco and play at the junior college level, giving him another opportunity to catch D-I teams' eye.
"I knew that if could get on the field and show what I got, I could definitely get a Division I offer," Hodge said. "I ended up getting what I wanted in the end."
UB came looking to fill up holes in its recruiting class and emerged as the most persistent of the handful of teams scouting Hodge. He liked the fit and the coaching staff, and it helped that he was from an hour outside Oakland and saw what Khalil Mack accomplished.
Hodge turned out to be more than just a body who can fit into Leipold's scheme. He's become one of the more prolific defensive players in the conference, exceeding even the coaching staff's expectations. After being named to the All-MAC second team last season, odds are he'll jump to the top squad this year.
That doesn't mean Hodge is complacent.
"Coming from junior college, you have to kind of prove everything," Hodge said. "Signing day, we were always the guys in the stands, not getting to sign with our families. There's always in the back of our minds, always a chip on our shoulder. That keeps us pushing."