The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday October 27th

SportSaturday - UNC senior Sedrick Hodge has developed into one of the nation's best linebackers.

North Carolina's 1997 recruiting haul at tailback was ranked among the top five nationally.

Ravon Anderson, Rufus Brown, Tyrell Godwin, Anthony Saunders and Domonique Williams combined to rush for 8,981 yards and 111 touchdowns in their senior seasons in high school.

The Tar Heels also brought in all-state linebacker Sedrick Hodge from Atlanta that year.

Three and a half seasons later, none of the backs has developed into the impact player UNC hoped they would.

Anderson and Williams transferred. Godwin quit football after his sophomore year to concentrate on baseball. Brown has struggled through one injury after another. And Saunders now plays fullback.

Unlike the ballyhooed quintet of running backs in his recruiting class, Hodge has been as good as advertised.

Hodge has really come into his own this season - his third as a starting outside linebacker. He's recorded five sacks in six games, eclipsing his career total of 3.5.

Hodge was added to the watch list for the Butkus Award, which is given annually to the nation's best linebacker.

"He's becoming the type of linebacker that I thought he was going to be when we signed him," UNC coach Carl Torbush says.

Much of Hodge's growth as a linebacker correlates with his maturation as a player.

Hodge always had the physical tools. He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds. A sprinter in high school, Hodge ran for UNC after his freshman and junior seasons on the football field.

Now as a senior, he's added a strong knowledge of the UNC defensive system to his repertoire and can detect and react to offenses even faster than his fleet feet can carry him.

"I think he's a lot more sudden because he understands quicker instead of trying to analyze things and then move," Torbush says. "I think he's a lot quicker flowing and understanding it."

Hodge's development was jump-started last season when middle linebacker Brandon Spoon tore his biceps in UNC's second game and missed the rest of the year.

Losing a leader like Spoon no doubt hurt the Tar Heels as they struggled to a 3-8 record, but it helped Hodge and fellow linebacker Merceda Perry improve.

Without Spoon, they had to assume more leadership on the defense and could not look to him in times of trouble.

"It made them take responsibilities that at that time, they did not want to take," Torbush says. "I think all of them relied on Brandon because Brandon had been through it basically for three years, and then all of a sudden Brandon wasn't there. So now they're looking to me for leadership.

"I think it made them grow up in that part without a doubt."

Spoon has witnessed the results.

"You can tell in Sedrick, a complete 180 just in his leadership ability this year," Spoon says.

Spoon returned to the lineup this season, but Perry went down with a broken ankle in the second game.

But Hodge and Spoon have still combined to create a formidable duo, with Hodge blitzing and Spoon stuffing the run.

"Definitely having Spoon out there has helped me out a lot," Hodge says. "I really missed Spoon because he's a great linebacker and he's a great complement to me. Having him out there helps me play better."

The two have started alongside one another for three years and have developed a close friendship and strong line of communication.

"We feed off each other and know what each other's thinking," Spoon says. "We don't have to talk sometimes. We just look at each other and give a little gesture and know what's going on."

The two friends also have a friendly rivalry going. They make side bets before each game on who will record the most tackles for a loss or sacks.

"He won't bet me for tackles because he knows I get the most tackles per game," says Spoon, who leads the team in tackles this season and also did so in 1998.

Hodge has gotten the better of Spoon so far this season but says that defensive coordinator Ken Browning has helped by allowing him to blitz more often than Spoon. But Spoon still vows to make a comeback.

Hodge and Spoon are just two of the great linebackers UNC has produced in the last decade. Bernardo Harris, Dwight Hollier, Kivuusama Mays, Mike Morton, Keith Newman and Brian Simmons all play in the NFL.

Hodge's improvement and strong performance over his career have earned him a mention among this group of Tar Heel linebackers. But he won't be the one to drop his name.

"We have a great linebacking tradition, and it's hard to compare myself to them because they're just great linebackers," Hodge says. "I value their play, and I watched them growing up so it's really hard to compare myself to them."

Yet Hodge and Simmons form a great study in similarity. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Hodge shares physical attributes with Simmons, who stands 6-4 and weighs 238 pounds. Simmons, like Hodge, possesses superior speed for a linebacker.

Simmons earned All-America honors as a senior in 1997, and the Cincinnati Bengals drafted him 17th overall in '98. He also served as a mentor to Hodge, who was a freshman that season.

"When I first got here, Brian Simmons was like my big brother," Hodge says. "I watched him a lot."

The two still keep in touch and work out together during the spring and summer.

Torbush says Hodge has always reminded him of Simmons.

"I thought he had the same type of attributes as Brian Simmons, and he's starting to use those," Torbush says. "If he'll continue to improve, he'll end up having a great season this year and should be a high-round draft choice."



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