Michael Hodges didn't totally operate in the shadows during his first three seasons on the New Orleans Saints' coaching staff. But this year, he definitely steps into the spotlight a bit more in his first year as linebackers coach (he was assistant linebackers coach under Mike Nolan last year, and a defensive assistant in 2017-18). Hodges knows the defensive system, and knows the players who will occupy the Saints' linebacker room, including All-Pro Demario Davis. He and his assistant, Michael Wilhoite, aim to contribute to a higher level of productivity for a unit that adds rookie Zack Baun and will have Alex Anzalone returning from injury.
Q: How big of a transition is it for you, to go from assistant linebackers coach to linebackers coach?
Hodges: My position, being that it's in the same building, it's less of a jump than if I would have gone to another club. The fact that players know me and I know the players, I know the scheme – those things all kind of align and it's made this transition much smoother than it what it would normally be if I had to go to a new club. There is a bunch of differences as far as, now it's my decision on some of the things that we do in there, and mostly how we teach. And that's what's exciting. So I get to kind of slide back into that teacher role, more than I was before, and that's what I thrive off of. I love that part of it. That's the biggest change, and it's been a lot of fun so far. I've enjoyed it.
Q: Does that translate to a more assertive voice? Do you feel like you pretty much have the same relationship with the players as before?
Hodges: I think the relationship was established before, it's just that now, I'm the one in front of them a little bit more. Mike Nolan was really, really great about allowing me to be a part of that teaching process, and it was very much a partnership between him and I. The difference is who's leading it now. Now I'm in the lead and Michael Wilhoite is my partner and we're doing this thing together. My voice won't change. I don't think of myself as an authoritative person, I just see myself as a tool and as an educator. And that's how I approach it.
Q: What are some of the challenges adjusting to that role without being able to do the things you traditionally would be able to do?
Hodges: You would have never thought: You are an NFL linebacker coach, it's been something you've been shooting for and then all of a sudden, your first meeting in front of the players, is through one of these mediums. So that's been a challenge. But (defensive coordinator) D.A. (Dennis Allen) has said it, (Coach) Sean (Payton) has said it, everybody has got the same challenge. It's been different, yes. I wish I could see their eyes, I wish I could feel them a little bit more, I wish I could coach them on the field. But we're overcoming that, just like everybody else is trying to overcome it. From the very beginning, I sat down with Michael Wilhoite and I said, 'We've got to find a way to be the best teachers in the NFL. Better than anybody else.' And really, both (of us) being young, both being eager and both being around maybe a little bit more electronics than some of the other coaches we're competing against, we should have an advantage. Just like anything, you're trying to find a winning edge and I think that we've done that. So that's what we've been spending our time this offseason doing.
Q: When you say you want feel them, is that more so with a guy like your rookie linebacker, Zack Baun? He has not been in the program yet.
Hodges: Sure. That definitely creates a different challenge for a guy that I haven't even shook his hand since the NFL Combine. But at the same time, being in front of all those veterans and having their feedback, and really even having that interaction amongst the whole group, there's so much value that comes from there, those guys being in there. A guy like Zack feeling the presence of Demario, and when has to answer a question, he feels Demario right there listening to him. And then there's feedback throughout the room. Those are things that we're missing, but we are getting some of that even through these calls. So, yes, I wish I could be in front of Zack and get him out on the field and continue to train him. That time will come. But right now, we've just got to get creative in how we do that.
Q: Has Baun made any impressions on you from the virtual or digital meetings you've had?
Hodges: Absolutely. (General Manager) Mickey (Loomis) called me and we were talking about Zack. And (Baun) has been an outstanding pro. For him to approach what he's been doing the way he has, I just know we got the right guy, and that goes to our scouting department. They knew all that stuff. You talk about a make-up – this guy's make-up is outstanding. And then from an intelligence standpoint, he approaches it the right way, he invites being corrected. It has been really impressive to see him – really, the rest of the young guys we've met with, we've got a group that is really fun to work with and really easy to work with. I'm just excited about it as we get going closer to August.
Q: With Baun's history as an edge rusher, are you envisioning more of an edge-rushing outside linebacker role than we've seen in this defense? Or do you think he can stay with what we've seen you guys do with the Sam in the past, and eventually Mike (linebacker)? Are you thinking of moving him to linebacker or changing what you do with that position?
Hodges: (Secondary coach) A.G. (Aaron Glenn) kind of hit on it. These guys are position-less and to bring in a guy who's really intelligent and who has position flex gives us a ton of freedom to do what we want to do. We have a vision for him. Every player I've talked to this offseason has been told, 'These are the two positions I want you to learn.' And he's no different. So we're teaching him Sam and Mike right now, and we're going to make you learn those two positions and then when we get to third down, that pass-rush value, we're going to try to leverage the hell out of it. And so, I think that, like we do with some of our safeties and like we do with a couple of our positions, we're going to do everything we can to put these guys in the best position week to week. And that may be a different spot from Game 1 to Game 3. And so, he's got his job of learning Sam and Mike and then in our third-down package, he's got another role. There's a lot on his plate as a rookie, but I do know that he has approached it in a way that's given me the confidence he's going to be able to handle it.
Q: How much of an impact player can Alex Anzalone be when healthy?
Hodges: We got a really good taste of that a couple of years ago, right? And going into last season, he was playing really well. Alex is one of my favorite players. Alex was the very first interview I ever had at the Combine. I'm in the NFL, I'm not supposed to be doing interviews yet we were slammed, all of a sudden I'm with Alex. There was a personal connection there early and then he gets in here and you evaluate him and you see how he works and you see his ability and there's things and there's a potential that he hasn't even come close to reaching, which is exciting. But I'm confident that he's going to be better than he's ever been. And look, his health, it is what it is and there's no secret there. And we know that he knows that, but I do know this, he looks outstanding right now. Just the videos that I've seen and the conversations that I have had, he looks outstanding and he tells me how good he feels. And so I think he's going to come in here and I think now, I think to my core – and I might be wrong – but I think he's over a hump now where he's going to be able to extend his career to that eight-, 10-year career that he should have, hopefully staying on the field, healthy.
Q: What can a guy like Demario (Davis) do to get even better? What else can he do?
Hodges: It is funny you ask, because we do these plan of attacks and we dive into what they can do better, but not only that, not only identifying a problem, but also identifying the solution. D.A. (Dennis Allen) charges us with that responsibility after the season. I did all these before (Michael) Wilhoite was kind of hired as the assistant and I sent them to him to look over and he's like, why are there more on Demario than anybody else? Well, you really look at it (and) there's so much film to study on him, right? And he's such a intentional learner. This guy takes an approach to it as good as anybody I've ever seen. The only other person I've seen approach it differently, from my short career, is Drew (Brees), and that's from afar. There's some things in coverage, there's some things in pass rush, there's some things in run fits that if I can get him just a little bit better at those things, well all of a sudden he's a perennial All-Pro player and it's not because of what I do. It's because he's using me as a tool, and he's using me as another resource to continue to get better. There's just always room for improvement. I never imagined being around a guy who is an All-Pro player, had the season he had last year and he calls me and he says, what can I do better? He calls me during the bye week and he says, 'What can I do better?' So that's really why I see that there's more upside for him. And I do think that we're going to see even a better player than we saw last year.
Q: You mentioned looking at things to teach the linebacker group. How creative have you had to get for these meetings, knowing that, all right, I won't be putting them through drills for a while, but finding ways to get them their own workouts and improve?
Hodges: I have found this extremely exciting. Like, I love it. I love this challenge. I really have embraced it. And Michael Wilhoite has been an unbelievable partner with this as we work on these things together. What we've done is spent a lot of time really defining what we do. And so what I've been able to do is really spend some time honing in on the words we use, how we verbalize it. And so right now I've had to really focus on the language that we use and putting it down on a piece of paper. It's something I'm going to be able to hang on to for a long time, but it's also something that they can reference back. It's Saturday night at 10:30 and Zack (Baun) doesn't have anything else to do so he pulls up an old teach tape and there's verbiage on there that explains what we're doing. All of a sudden he's getting a lesson then that he wouldn't have gotten before because maybe I wouldn't have had the reason to do it.
Q: With the position-less football that you guys are talking about, did you ever do any work with any of the defensive backs? Is there any crossover there where they come into your purview a little bit?
Hodges: No, not in the sense that they're in my room. We're not there yet, but I will say this: There's been conversations with A.G. (Aaron Glenn) and (defensive line coach) Ryan Nielsen where there's so much involvement in the room for us to be upfront with those guys and then there's involvement in the back end. So what we'll do going forward, and I am really excited about it is, we're going to make sure that we carve out time throughout the season, particularly in camp. And then when it suits us for specific components, we are going to work with the other groups more often. Because there's never a time when we are not communicating with somebody up front or communicating with somebody in the back end. And if we can get a little bit better there and them having an understanding of what we're trying to do and vice versa, we're going to be in better shape. So there's going to be a little more crossover, but it's going to be joint coaching as opposed to the player, moving into another room to learn a different position.