2019 NFL Draft: Why Buffalo LB Khalil Hodge can be a productive three-down NFL defender

Khalil Hodge needs some more love as a legit NFL prospect.

Though he plays for the Buffalo Bulls, historically a non-powerhouse in the MAC, the senior linebacker has been overshadowed by two teammates on the offensive side of the ball. Wideout Anthony Johnson -- a 6-foot-2, 205-pound, yards-after-the-catch specialist -- had 1,356 yards and 14 touchdowns on 76 receptions in 2017 and is a likely first- or second-round pick. Quarterback Tyree Jackson might even be more captivating to scouts and general managers at 6-7 and 245 pounds with plus athleticism, a monster arm, and a 30-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio to date in his career.

All Hodge did last season was finish as the nation's second-leading tackler with 153 takedowns. He also added two pass breakups, a pair of force fumbles and two interceptions, including this highlight-reel snag against Western Michigan. 

In November 2017, I profiled then-UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport as a sleeper prospect with "enormous NFL potential." While only time will tell if he reaches that potential in the NFL, a little more than five months after that article was published, the Saints used their 2019 first-round pick to trade up from No. 27 to No. 14 overall to select him in the 2018 draft. 

Let's start this year's sleeper series with Hodge, an athletic linebacker with a refined game who's already one of the best second-level defenders in college football

The 6-1, 235-pound senior linebacker has 18 tackles through two games, and he has broken up two passes. 

By now, everyone knows speed is important for linebackers in today's NFL. Another vital aspect of playing the position is the ability to defeat blocks, and do so quickly. Fast linebackers can make plays when they're given a free lane to the ball carrier. Fast, block-shedding linebackers are difficult to find and typically become stars at the pro level. 

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Run Plays

Notice how Hodge made quick work of the smaller blocker -- a wideout -- en route to the ball-carrier on this play. Most top-level linebacker prospects would probably beat that block, but many would stay on it for too long, thereby eliminating themselves from the chance to make the play behind or near the line. 

The rapid stack-and-shed from Hodge was impressive.

Though this play was a little slower to develop for Hodge, he once again showcased his willingness to find the football even after being contacted. He attacked one of the "A" gaps, which forced the running back to bounce to the other inside lane, but Hodge was aware, athletic, and strong enough to spin off the block to help with the tackle. 

That's a mastery-level play from the linebacker and one I don't see often from prospects. 

On this play, Hodge flashed his quickness and combined it with a fine display of his hand use to swim over the incoming blocker who looked completely out of sorts -- almost stunned -- to not find the linebacker where he expected him to be waiting. Hodge then exploded for the big hit on the running back. 

Also note how fast Hodge read then reacted to his run-play keys to get himself a few steps ahead of everyone else on the play to put himself in position to deploy the swim move then make the tackle. 

As the Mike linebacker against a stretch play, Hodge had the unenviable task of beating the frontside guard -- in this case, the right guard -- to the hole to wall off the initial running lane and not get totally washed out of the play to open a subtle cutback lane behind him. 

Check how Hodge's speed and bendiness helped him to not only beat the right guard to the spot but dip under him and help with the tackle as the Temple running back tried to jump inside. 

Even if the backside defensive tackle didn't scrape down the line of scrimmage as well as he did on this play, Hodge would've been in position to at least get his hands on the ball-carrier. 

Lastly, in the run-game wins department against Temple, Hodge put his refined block-defeating ability against power on film too. As he attacked downhill, he was met by a pulling left guard with a full head of steam. As the block approached, Hodge leaned to the inside toward the running back, held his ground, and assisted on the tackle with his free arm. 

For a linebacker on the smaller side, this was a nice showing of the amount of controlled power he can generate.

Coverage

Though nothing spectacular here, notice how quickly Hodge was able to change directions to get the pass breakup on this short pass over the middle.

Hodge also was very aggressive attacking the football as it arrived ... which led to second-and-10 instead of second-and-4. 

On this fine play in coverage, Hodge quickly dropped down the seam, read the quarterback, then exploded to the football and dove to knock down the pass. 

Not exactly sure what the quarterback had in mind there, because he threw the ball to a covered receiver, but Hodge's keen awareness in coverage and athleticism were on full display.

Conclusions

The Buffalo linebacker demonstrated his polished skill set on all of these plays in the same contest, Buffalo's 36-29 win over Temple in Philadelphia. He doesn't look like a blazing 4.55 linebacker, which is really my only clear-cut knock on his game at this point. 

Hodge is twitchy, powerful, identifies plays quickly and, maybe most impressively, understands the many ways he can use his hands and athletic talent to efficiently avoid blocks or beat them to make impact plays. 

Notre Dame's Te'von Coney, LSU's Devin White, and Wisconsin's T.J. Edwards are the current headliners at off-ball linebacker in the 2019 draft class, but it's time we start mentioning Hodge in the same breath as those three defenders. 

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