Samford’s Hodges back where it all started

Samford quarterback Devlin Hodges (8) scrambles away from Georgia linebacker Natrez Patrick (6) in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

(STATS) – Chris Hatcher saw enough from Devlin Hodges in mop-up duty during the first half of the 2015 season that he decided to hand the redshirt freshman quarterback the starting job in late October.

It didn’t take long to see he made the right call.

Hodges took the reins in a road game at Western Carolina two years ago and hasn’t surrendered them since as he and the 18th-ranked Bulldogs return to Cullowhee for what should be a shootout with the Catamounts on Saturday.

Hodges threw for 277 yards and his first collegiate touchdown in relief of Michael Eubank on Oct. 17, 2015, in a loss to The Citadel, and seven days later he found himself under center from the get-go at Western Carolina. Hatcher got his money’s worth from his three-star recruit despite Samford’s 56-36 loss: 61 passes (42 completions), 399 yards through the air, 94 more on the ground and four total TDs.

“I remember coming in and being prepared and making some big plays,” Hodges said. “It’s been great to see myself grow from that game, all the way up until now.”

The Bulldogs lost again the next week at Furman before reeling off three straight wins to finish the season. Hodges threw for 1,047 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception in setting the stage for 2016, when he wound up being named the SoCon’s offensive player of the year.

“A lot of it had to do with, going into that first game my sophomore year, I had some games under my belt,” Hodges said. “It wasn’t like it was my first college start that first game. Another thing was, I had more time to get timing down with my receivers, and even to learn the offense even more in the spring and over the summer. I had a lot more confidence coming into that sophomore season, just because of the snaps I had played before.”

Only 2016 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award finalists Jeremiah Briscoe and Gage Gubrud have thrown more touchdown passes since the start of last season than Hodges’ 45.

“Any time a football team has a quarterback, they have a chance, and they have a quarterback,” Western Carolina coach Mark Speir said Monday. “He’s an excellent thrower, but he’s a big guy who can run, and you have to respect him in the run game. He’s as good as any quarterback in the country, but that offense does a good job of trying to keep you off-balanced.

“Our hands will be full. We have to affect him; if he sits back in his comfort zone, it’s going to be a long day.”

Hodges had nine TDs through the air during Samford’s 2-1 start, though the schedule doesn’t exactly settle down after playing between the hedges in a 42-14 loss to Georgia last week. A home date with reigning conference champ The Citadel looms next Saturday, but the Bulldogs shouldn’t get caught looking ahead.

The progress Mark Speir’s program seemed to be making in seven-win seasons in 2014 and 2015 disappeared last season, but the Catamounts are doing their best to wipe that 2-9 finish from their memory. Western Carolina outgained Hawaii in a season-opening 41-18 loss, then piled up 1,201 yards and 105 points in back-to-back wins over Davidson and Gardner-Webb.

The reward? A three-week stretch against Samford, Chattanooga and Wofford – three of the SoCon’s four 2016 playoff teams.

But the Bulldogs are the one SoCon contender with by far the most question marks on defense. Samford has allowed 508.7 yards per game thus far – 117th of the 124 teams in the FCS. Sure, Hatcher’s team gave up 42 points to Georgia, but it also let Division II’s West Alabama score 41 the week before.

So it should be no surprise that the over/under is set at 73 1/2 in Cullowhee. Among teams that have played at least twice, the Catamounts are fourth in the subdivision in total offense at 561.0 yards per contest, up there with the likes of national powers North Dakota State and James Madison.

Senior running back/kicker returner Detrez Newsome leads the FCS in all-purpose yards per game, but it’s been sophomore quarterback Tyrie Adams’ improvement – he’s averaging 10.11 yards per attempt and has thrown for nine TDs with just two INTs – that’s perhaps the most encouraging sign.

“They have tremendous athletes, and they have a very good scheme,” Hatcher said. “Defensively, it’s the same thing every week, we have to stop the run and limit the big plays.

Speir has been in charge of the Catamounts since 2012, but it was two coaches before him when the program last beat a ranked opponent – a 20-17 win over No. 19 Eastern Kentucky in 2006. Western Carolina has lost 27 straight against the FCS Top 25 since then.