Darius Hodge is most interesting

In May, back when Darius Hodge was an undrafted free agent linebacker who was a long shot to make the Cincinnati Bengals out of training camp, defensive line coach Marion Hobby put the linebackers through a pass-rushing drill.

Hobby remembers Hodge twisting his arms, getting under a pad and accelerating toward the spot where the quarterback would be. It was an impressive rep, so impressive that after a few coaches saw it, they brought it up in a coaches meeting.

That meeting ended with a decision that the Bengals would convert Hodge from a linebacker into an edge rusher.

More:Bengals ‘likely’ to be without DE Joseph Ossai for season as rookie underwent surgery for knee injury

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Darius Hodge (44) prepares to rush the passer during Cincinnati Bengals practice on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Cincinnati.

“When I came in, I wasn’t really a pass rusher,” Hodge said. “They helped me learn the plays, they helped me with my moves. The whole defensive line gave me something to look for to keep playing the defensive line the right way.”

Since OTAs, Hodge has become the Bengals' most surprising edge rusher this preseason. During the first two preseason games, Hodge has a sack, three tackles and six quarterback hits.

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Darius Hodge (44) stands during practice Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021.

After rookie edge rusher Joseph Ossai suffered a potentially season-ending knee injury, there’s an opening on the Bengals' first-team pass-rush unit. Due to his strong play in the preseason, Hodge is in contention to fill that role where he would rush the passer alongside the starters, Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson.

Hodge hasn’t been guaranteed a roster spot yet, and his future with the Bengals will likely be impacted by the way he plays on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. But since May, Hodge has been a player the Bengals were willing to take a chance with.

“Sometimes coaches start pulling players from other positions and try to get them in their group if they think they can rush,” Hobby said. “Hodge showed those traits. Every day we evaluate talent in our meetings and talk about what guys can do and what they can’t do. He showed us he could rush the passer.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Kyle Trask (2) eludes Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Darius Hodge (44) as he throws a pass during the second half of an NFL preseason football game Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)

Hodge was a two-year starter at Marshall and earned All-Conference USA recognition during his redshirt junior season. While Hodge sporadically lined up on the line of scrimmage, he was an outside linebacker throughout his college career. In his three years at Marshall, he had 117 tackles and just 15.5 sacks.

When Hodge didn’t get drafted, he said he signed with the Bengals because the coaching staff was honest with him. Then during OTAs, he worked with Bengals linebackers coach Al Golden.

The plan quickly changed. Hodge knew his speed could translate into success at edge rusher, and he was on board with the plan right away.

“At this point, ball is ball,” Hodge said. “Any way to help a team, I’ll do it. If they tell me to play right guard, I’m out there.”

Marshall defensive end Darius Hodge (2) strips the ball from Louisiana Tech junior quarterback Luke Anthony (9) during a Conference USA matchup inside Joe Aillet Stadium Oct. 17, 2020.

As soon as Hodge started playing on the defensive line, he began asking questions to Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack about how impactful he was off the edge. After practice, Hodge has stayed for extra work on hand placement and technique with Hobby.

Hodge only played with the second and third-string defense in the preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But after Ossai’s injury, Hodge worked his way up to the first-team defense for the second preseason game. He entered the game on the second series against the Washington Football Team.

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Darius Hodge (44) pushes around offensive tackle Isaiah Prince (75) during a training camp practice at the Paul Brown Stadium training field in downtown Cincinnati on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021.

“They wanted to see what I can do against the guys we’ll play on Sunday,” Hodge said. “It was a big jump for me, it was different and something I’ve got to get used to.”

When Hodge lines up on the defensive line, Hobby compared him to a sprinter. Just like a track athlete would start out of the blocks, Hodge runs right into his pass rush move. At 245 pounds, Hodge is the Bengals' smallest defensive lineman.

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