Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer discuss UNLV's shocking 40-20 victory over Hawaii in last Saturday's home opener at Sam Boyd Stadium, take a look at this weekend's game against Southern Utah and hit on how the Hawaii victory could change the course of the 2011 season.
In two seasons at UNLV, Sidney Hodge has earned his way up the depth chart and onto the field the same way he did so at Palo Verde High as a junior transfer from Corpus Christi, Texas.
"He came in the very last day of school his sophomore year, he came up to Southern Utah camp with us going into his junior year, and I'll be honest, we weren't that impressed with him," Palo Verde coach Darwin Rost recalled. "We thought he'd probably be OK, might get a starting job for us, and he just got better and better."
Since graduating from Palo Verde in 2009, Hodge has continued to get bigger, faster and stronger, and now is proving that Bobby Hauck and his staff were right in taking a chance on him, just as the previous regime at UNLV was willing to do.
The 5-foot-8 sophomore cornerback is coming off of arguably his finest game at UNLV in last Saturday's surprising 40-20 upset of Hawaii. Just a week after one of the roughest defensive performance in the program's recent history resulted in a 59-7 loss at Washington State, Hodge helped lead the charge to redemption, registering a team-high 5.5 tackles, recovering a fumble and breaking up two passes against the Warriors.
A similar performance will be needed this weekend as UNLV looks to even its 1-2 record out against Football Championship Subdivision foe Southern Utah at 6 p.m. at Sam Boyd Stadium.
He could also launch himself now into having a breakout season after taking the typical freshman lumps a year ago.
"He's just a year older and more experienced — with college experience," Rebels defensive coordinator Kraig Paulson said. "Once you start getting ahead of plays, you're the faster one."
Being able to read plays before they happen is especially important for Hodge, whose speed was one of the areas of concern that led to him being overlooked by many coming out of high school.
"It wasn't that he was ever slow, but he got better with his speed when he was here," Rost said. "Size had something to do with it, plus we only had him for two years. Sometimes, when kids bounce around like that, they can get passed over."
Hodge moved from Texas after his dad accepted a job offer in Vegas. He truly broke out for the Panthers as a senior, when they went 14-1 and were state runners-up. That season, he was second team all-state on defense, recording 39 tackles and seven interceptions. He saw plenty of action his way, with opposing quarterbacks tending to avoid teammate Torin Harris, who now plays at USC, on the other side of the field.
Still, despite his production, his lone Division-I offer came from UNLV coach Mike Sanford, and that was followed up by a grayshirt year during the 2009 season. While attending classes part-time at UNLV and working a full-time job, Hodge bulked up in his spare time and worked to be even lighter on his feet.
"It was a tough process," he said. "All of my focus was on just trying to get better and get here."
When the coaching staff turner over the following offseason, Hodge was given the same chance to earn a spot by Hauck & Co. Really, it was a perfect fit for Hodge, as Hauck immediately gave everyone a fresh start and a shot at competing for playing time, no matter their age or experience.
"In that situation, you don't really know what to expect — You didn't recruit the guys," Hauck said. "They're like veteran guys — Get them on the field, see what they can do, then you form an opinion."
What the staff saw when Hodge took the field was a strong, aggressive corner with some real potential both in coverage and as a hitter.
Hodge shot his way up the ranks on a depleted defense, and ended up starting six of UNLV's 13 games, missing the season's final four contests due to injury. He racked up 44 tackles, 1.5 sacks, broke up two passes, forced two fumbles and recovered one loose ball. By best utilizing his thick build, he set himself apart as one of the team's strongest hitters on the perimeter.
This year, he's simply been more consistent. Through three games, he's tied for the team lead with 14 tackles, but leads the club with 12 solo stops. Regardless of position, he's become one of the team's surer open-field tacklers. Paulson attributes that to not just the experience, but also Hodge's impressive physique and ability to stay low on taller targets.
If the UNLV offer had never come, Hodge said he has no clue what he would have opted to do after high school. It's knowing how close he was to not being in the program today that he credits as the motivation behind his early success.
"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "Every day here is a blessing. Every game we play, I consider it a blessing, because I know there are plenty of other kids out there who would love to play college football and don't get to. I'm pretty prideful in what I do."