New Lions WR KhaDarel Hodge looks to carve out more than special-teams role
Allen Park — Before arriving in the NFL as an undrafted free agent, Detroit Lions wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge didn't know a thing about tackling. A high school quarterback, he shifted to receiver at Prairie View A&M before earning a shot with the Los Angles Rams ahead of the 2018 season.
It's an uphill climb for an undrafted rookie to make any roster, but that path is typically paved with special-teams contributions. With no previous experience with those units in high school or college, Hodge proved to be an impressively quick study, winning a job and appearing in 14 games as a rookie, as well as all three postseason games for the Rams.
"I ended up enjoying it and found out I was actually pretty good at it," Hodge said. "I did realize at that time that it was a way that I needed to stay on the field, so I need to take advantage of it and that's what I've been doing."
Waived by the Rams and claimed by the Browns ahead of the 2019 season, Hodge has continued as a key special-teams contributor. But after getting scooped up by the Lions off waivers last week, he's hoping to spread his wings on offense, as well.
In just nine games last season, Hodge saw a career-high 291 offensive snaps with the Browns. That resulted in 11 receptions on 17 targets for 180 yards, with each catch resulting in a first down. That taste left him wanting more.
"I can do whatever," Hodge said. "I can play inside. I can play outside. I can make plays down the field, 50-50 balls. I'm just here to showcase my talents and prove that I am a receiver in the NFL and not just a special teamer."
Hodge has had the opportunity to work as an understudy with quality receivers during his brief three years in the league, including Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods in Los Angeles and Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry in Cleveland.
"I've learned a lot from the guys that's had a lot of success in the league," Hodge said.
'Blessing in disguise'
At a press conference last week, Lions general manager Brad Holmes humorously admitted he had no idea who Trinity Benson was before the then-Broncos wide receiver was brought to his attention by the team's director of pro personnel, Rob Lohman.
That's not as crazy as it sounds. Despite two seasons on the Broncos practice squad, Benson is so under the radar he doesn't have a Wikipedia page, an oddity for a professional athlete.
A former standout at East Central University in Oklahoma, Benson only had two offers coming of high school. His small stature, self-estimated to be 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, was the most likely culprit for the tepid interest.
But a growth and subsequent production spurt got him on the NFL's radar during his senior season. And after an impressive preseason showing this year, where he caught all eight passes thrown his direction, including a pair of touchdowns, Holmes liked what he saw enough to ship a pair of late-round draft picks to the Broncos in exchange for Benson and a sixth-round selection.
"It's a blessing in disguise, man," Benson said. "It shows that they really were interested in me and they really got plans for me in the future."
The soft-spoken Benson didn't have much to offer when asked about what the team said about his potential role, other than the Lions just want him to keep doing what he was doing for the Broncos in the preseason.
"I just view myself as a football player," Benson said. "Whatever the team needs me to do to help win, I'm willing to do it."
Familiar faces as foes
Sunday's Week 1 game against the 49ers will be something of an alum matchup game in the trenches. When the Lions are on offense, former Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker will frequently be matched up with 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa, another Buckeye selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
And on the opposite side of the offensive line, rookie Penei Sewell will have his hands full with Arik Armstead in a battle of former Oregon Ducks.
Defensively, Lions outside linebacker Romeo Okwara will be looking to build off his breakout 2020 campaign working against former college teammate Michael McGlinchey.
"Obviously (played against) former teammates in the past like Zack Martin, but me and Mike, we had our fair share of battles at Notre Dame," Okwara said. "It's going to be very exciting to be able to match up against him this week. That's something I'm really looking forward to."
While there were a number of COVID-19 cases around the league following a long weekend for players, the Lions have initially come out unscathed, according to coach Dan Campbell.
"We came out fine," Campbell said. "We came out good. We’re happy about that for sure."
As for D'Andre Swift, who had been limited through most of training camp with a groin injury, Campbell is increasingly optimistic about the running back's preparedness heading into the game against the 49ers.
"Certainly, I feel like we’re in a better place than we were a week ago when we talked," Campbell said.