Johnny Hodges played a prominent role in helping the Quince Orchard football program capture the Class 4A state championship in 2018. Hodges recovered an onside kick with 14 seconds remaining to clinch a 40-33 victory over North Point in the championship game, which was held at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
It was a memorable moment that was particularly special for Hodges, who knew he would be playing future games at the historic stadium in Annapolis with a stick in his hands as a Naval Academy lacrosse player.
Hodges was part of the defensive midfield rotation as a plebe and played a decent amount against Furman, being credited with a caused turnover. Although his career with Navy lacrosse appeared promising, the Darnestown resident sensed something was missing.
“I had a blast playing lacrosse and made friends for a lifetime,” Hodges said. “It’s just that I felt a void in my life. I was enjoying lacrosse, but it wasn’t driving me.”
Hodges realized more than ever he’s a football player at heart. He recalled attending football games and thinking, “I should be out there.”
So when the Navy lacrosse season was abruptly canceled because of coronavirus in mid-March, Hodges switched gears. He reached out to the Navy football staff seeking to join the team.
When that initial contact drew no response, Hodges, a three-year varsity letterman on the gridiron who earned first team All-Metro honors from The Washington Post as a senior, asked Quince Orchard coach John Kelley to contact Navy assistant Ashley Ingram to provide a recommendation.
“The kid pestered the heck out of coaching staff to get on the football team here,” Navy inside linebackers coach P.J. Volker said. “He stayed after us and did not let us forget about him. Johnny displayed an incredible desire to be part of program.”
Ingram, who is responsible for recruiting Montgomery County, knew about Hodges. Navy football decided not to recruit the standout inside linebacker after learning he was already committed to the academy for lacrosse.
Upon learning Hodges wanted to switch sports, the football staff renewed the evaluation process. Volker reviewed high school film of Hodges and was impressed.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo agreed to give Hodges a shot and, so far, the evidence indicates that was a good decision. Hodges already stands third on the depth chart at the weak-side linebacker position and is seeing action on special teams.
Hodges got into the BYU game on defense during the fourth quarter and was credited with four tackles. While it came during garbage time of a 55-3 loss, that tackle output certainly caught the attention of Volker.
“Hey, he made four tackles in seven snaps. That’s great production and definitely means something,” Volker said. “On two of the tackles, he savagely beat off a blocker. He did great job of getting to the football.”
It marked the first time Volker and defensive coordinator Brian Newberry saw the newcomer play tackle football since Navy held no-contact practices during preseason camp. While there is still much improvement to be made, Hodges is looking like quite the discovery.
“I do think Johnny has a tremendous upside and is barely scratching surface of the player he can be,” Volker said. “Most importantly, he’s got a phenomenal work ethic. Playing inside linebacker here is no easy feat, but he’s got a burning desire to learn and get better.”
Hodges appears to have raised his stock with his performance in the season opener.
“I’m getting more reps in practice. I can tell the coaches are definitely testing me every day in practice to see how much I can handle,” he said.
Hodges was among the Navy lacrosse players stricken by a norovirus following a road game at Richmond on Feb. 18. He lost about 10 pounds as a result. After hearing he would be allowed to try out for football, Hodges worked with a personal trainer to add 20 pounds of muscle and reported back to the academy at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds.
“He looks like how you want an inside linebacker to look. He also has a good skill set and instincts,” Volker said. “I would describe him as a run-and-hit type of guy. Very physical and plays the game full-speed.”
Volker was pleased upon hearing Hodges puts together note cards filled with information from team meetings. Hodges told his position coach that he quizzes himself on defensive calls and inside linebacker techniques at night in his dormitory room at Bancroft Hall.
“Johnny keeps getting better and better every day, which is a real testament to his intense drive and determination,” Volker said.
Hodges was understandably buried on the depth chart when August training camp began, but he steadily worked his way up the ladder. Now Hodges is behind starter Tama Tuitele and backup Terrell Adams at the WILL position.
“I’m not going to say I’m totally surprised because I know how much time and effort I’ve put in to get here,” Hodges said. “I’ve worked my tail off as far as strength and conditioning. I’ve studied playbook like crazy. I treat myself as a walk-on who has to constantly prove himself.”
That said, Hodges is the first to admit college football is another world and much work needs to be done to earn meaningful playing time on defense. Practice is much more intense than high school and some of Newberry’s schemes are complex.
“Fortunately, my teammates have been great about helping me learn the position,” he added. “Sometimes, I’ll have a brain cramp out there. I’ll be in man coverage instead of zone. I still need to prove that I’ll be where I’m supposed to be at all times.”
Hodges has given up lacrosse for the time being as he plans to participate in spring football practice, but he will “keep an open mind" and said, “maybe it will happen later in my career.”
Having gotten a taste of Division I college football, Hodges is happy he switched sports.
“I’m very passionate and feel driven all the time with football,” he said.