ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The hurt is still there for Khalil Hodge.
The University at Buffalo senior linebacker admits he hasn’t gotten over the disappointing end to what started as a dream season for the Bulls. Losses in the Mid-American Conference championship game to Northern Illinois and the Dollar General Bowl to Troy spoiled a season that began with such promise.
“It still hurts, but that’s over now,” Hodge said. “The next obstacle is getting ready for the next three or four months and what’s ahead.”
That’s the NFL draft. Hodge is expected to be a Day 3 pick (fourth to seventh rounds), but can improve that stock with a good showing during the pre-draft process, which kicked off Monday with the first practice of the week leading up to Saturday’s 94th East-West Shrine Game, which will be played at Tropicana Field.
Hodge is one of the 100 draft hopefuls taking part in the Shrine game, and one of five linebackers on the East roster. His position coach this week is John Egorugwu, who is the defensive quality control coach for the Bills.
“I didn’t know him too much, but I started looking at him when I saw that he was going to be down here,” Egorugwu said of Hodge. “I like him. I think he’s an aggressive kid. He plays downhill. He seems to be pretty smart so far in meetings and those things. You get a little bit of a close bond with a guy like that being from Buffalo, so I’m excited. I want to see him do well.”
At least as far as the first practice of the week goes, it was a good start for Hodge. Two NFL personnel executives, speaking candidly, said Hodge looked good in practice. The website nfldraftscout.com has him ranked as the No. 6 inside linebacker available in this year’s class out of 108 eligible prospects.
“I really don’t,” Hodge said on if he had any expectations about where he might get drafted. “I’m letting God handle everything, trusting his process and just trying to enjoy it.”
That can be tough to do when so many NFL eyes are on him. The contingent from the Bills on Monday included General Manager Brandon Beane, assistant GM Joe Schoen, director of college scouting Terrance Gray, senior college scout Dennis Hickey and others. After practice, Hodge met with representatives from the Redskins and Chargers.
“Right now he just needs to be himself,” Egorugwu said. “Do what we’re trying to tell him. Play within the scheme and system. Play with effort. Play with passion – do the same things he was doing in college, and then be ready to show up when it’s time to play Saturday.”
In 14 games with the Bulls in 2018, Hodge finished with a team-leading 144 tackles (7.5 of which went for losses), 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one interception. He was named a fourth-team All-American by Phil Steele, one of just two players from the MAC to land on one of the four All-American teams. In three years at UB, Hodge made at least 100 tackles every season, finishing his career with 421 – third in school history.
“The experience, the brotherhood, the lifelong friendships that I made there, it’s something I’ll cherish forever,” Hodge said. “It was the chance to really turn the whole program around. Coach (Lance) Leipold talked about leaving a place better than you found it, and I definitely feel like as a class, we did that.”
Hodge is just the second UB player to take part in the Shrine game, following Buffalo native Naaman Roosevelt’s appearance in 2010.
“I want to show that playing at a small school really doesn’t define me,” Hodge said. “Playing in Buffalo, playing in the MAC doesn’t mean I can’t compete against big-time talent. This is definitely a cool experience, getting a chance to show that.”
Hodge isn’t the only UB player getting a chance to show what he can do on the all-star circuit. On Sunday, defensive end Chuck Harris and cornerback Cameron Lewis participated in the Tropical Bowl. Next week, quarterback Tyree Jackson and wide receiver Anthony Johnson will play in the Senior Bowl.
“The one thing you’ve got to say is that staff down there does a great job of getting those guys prepared,” Egorugwu said. “They’re disciplined. They play with effort. At the base minimum, that’s stuff that’s going to translate to the NFL. Being an effort player, that’s being a pro. Khalil's doing a lot of those things right now, so I’m excited to see how he progresses the rest of this week.”
Hodge is getting a chance to show his versatility this week. He lined up at middle linebacker during his time at UB, but spent much of Monday’s practice working at weak-side linebacker.
“Wherever I need to be, it’s cool,” he said. “It’s different, but you’ve got to be versatile in this league and be ready to do whatever’s asked. I just want to show I’m a three-down linebacker. I can play the ‘MIKE’ or the ‘WILL’ – it really doesn’t matter. I didn’t have all those tackles just because I was at Buffalo.”
Since UB’s season ended, Hodge has been training for the pre-draft process in San Diego at EXOS, a high-performance sports training center that focuses on getting players ready for pro days and the NFL draft process. He’s taking online classes and will finish his degree in sociology this spring.
A reminder of what Hodge is playing for was visible Monday on the tape on his right arm – the name Kadeem Hodge was written in black marker. That’s Khalil Hodge’s younger brother, who was murdered in their hometown of Antioch, Calif., in December 2017.
“It’s still tough. We’re still working through it as a family,” Hodge said of dealing with his loss. “It’s still a sore feeling, but you’ve got to keep putting your best foot forward. I know he’s watching, and I’m always playing for him. Every time I step on the field, there’s a reminder of him somewhere.”