NFL Draft

Bucky Hodges brings more versatility at tight end than his frame would suggest

September 19, 2015: Virginia Tech Hokies tight end Bucky Hodges (7) before a NCAA football game between the Purdue Boilermakers and Virginia Tech Hokies at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, IN. Photographer: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire
Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

Bucky Hodges is a big, versatile pass catcher who has caught a lot of attention as a potential offensive weapon in the NFL. He is notably 6-foot-7, and I say notably because announcers will never let viewers forget his height during a broadcast. Of course, standing at that height, Hodges is certainly noted in defensive game plans. Having the best corner on the team match up with the most dangerous receiving option isn’t uncommon, and often that means top corners giving up three or four inches of height to their opponent. On top of that, there is (usually) a correlating wingspan advantage, leaving defensive backs to make up for a half of a foot or more with their positioning and leaping ability.

At Hodges’ height, the long, lean tight end is a different kind of animal. Good luck trying to cover him with a cornerback, when he has the ability to go right over the top of the defense. If he could just be competent at that height that could be enough to have Joseph Fauria’s brief but not insignificant career.

In short, the reason the announcers go through all that trouble to announce Hodges’ height is because on plays like this against William & Mary.

Running a corner route from the middle position of a trips set on the quarterback’s left — the wide side of the field — means Hodges has plenty of room to work with. All the quarterback needs to do is float the ball over the defender’s head in the back of the end zone.

However, the Hokie quarterback fails to even meet that standard. The ball doesn’t quite reach the back of the end zone, coming up short and putting the defender in position to make a play on the ball with a chance to pick it off. The defender is attached to Hodges who is working back to the underthrow and leaps to make a play on the football. That is where Hodges’ size comes in. He gets higher than his opponent and catches the ball in his chest over the cornerback’s outstretched arms. He is able to secure the catch — not cleanly — and put a touchdown on the board for Virginia Tech.

Of course, Hodges isn’t the only tall tight end in the country. (Also, though 6-foot-7 just sounds better than even 6-foot-6, tight ends like O.J. Howard and Jake Butt aren’t usually considered undersized.) If being that tall alone made him an NFL player, there wouldn’t be much else to say. Where Hodges stakes his personal claim is as an athlete. Here against North Carolina, he shows the fluidity running routes closer to that of a receiver than to an average collegiate tight end.

Hodges gets in and out of his break on this play with ease. His ability to threaten the space in the corner of the end zone forces the safety to move to his right, and that subtle move by Hodges opens up an easy throwing lane to the middle of the field. Virginia Tech is able to spread Hodges out and force defenses to prepare for a number of looks.

Ford is the focal point of the Hokies offense, having caught 75 passes for nearly 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, but Hodges is the guy who opens up the field for him. By splitting both guys out wide on opposite sides of the field, it increases the chances one of the two will be in single coverage, which both players can take advantage of for different reasons. Defenses that commit two defenders to each, the middle of the field becomes a haven for the rest of the playmakers on offense.

Tight ends who can play receiver add a level of complication to opposing defensive game plans. As a former high school quarterback and a gifted athlete, Hodges adds another dimension. When he is on the field, they could line him up at tight end in a power run formation and then throw out of that. They can line him up out wide and spread defenses thin. They can also keep him in the backfield, where he has 18 carries for 79 yards and a touchdown as a runner in his career. Those numbers amount to little considering they come over 25-plus games as a collegiate player, but the threat allows them to attack their opponents in a myriad of ways.

Against Tennessee earlier this year, they built an early lead and ultimately lost to the Vols. Hodges was unimpressive as a receiver in the box score, catching three passes for only 13 yards. However, Virginia Tech handed him the ball three times out of the backfield, quite a sight for a player his height. They also pitched the ball to him on the option, adding a new wrinkle to the offense.

On top of that, Hodges drew two defensive pass interference calls in that game. Both came with him lined up as a wide receiver. The overwhelmed cornerback committed both penalties after finding himself unable to deal with his size, essentially giving up the 15 yards over a much longer catch and run or a possible touchdown. In the NFL, spot fouls will only increase the value of those plays where defensive backs grab the bigger receiver rather than allow him to make big plays down the field.

That ability to threaten defensive backs with size is what changes defensive schemes. What makes Hodges rare is that he still has the ability to threaten defenses with speed and athleticism. In this play against Pittsburgh, he made a spectacular catch running up the sidelines.

Hodges gets up the sidelines beating the defender cleanly by simply running by him. A perfect throw in stride leads him into the end zone for an easy touchdown. By leading him too much, it forces him to make an athletic play more commonly seen by smaller players or superheroes like Julio Jones. The full-extension dive hauls in the pass and comes with a violent collision to the turf inside the 10-yard line.

He only has 18 catches for 237 yards and three touchdowns this season, numbers that don’t jump off the page. However, he changes the way defenses prepare for Virginia Tech. Part of that comes from a bigger focus on him in the passing game by opposing players. During his first two years in Blacksburg, Hodges was a consistent force, totaling 85 receptions, 556 yards, and 13 scores.

Even if he doesn’t match that production as a junior, Hodges has a chance to be a dangerous and versatile offensive weapon that a smart offensive coach will see as a Swiss Army Knife for his team. The only difference will be that this Swiss Army Knife is 6-foot-7.

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