JACKSONVILLE – Life is good for Cooper Hodges these days. The rookie offensive lineman from Appalachian State and Baker County High School near Jacksonville is excited to have been drafted and to have the chance to play professional football. But to be drafted by his hometown team? That's a different level of good altogether. The powerful young lineman is by all accounts very talented with a bright NFL future – and with a lot of work to be done to get there. Senior Correspondent Brian Sexton caught up with him off the practice field recently to find out if he's still pinching himself on a daily basis to make sure it's all real.
Question: You're in the NFL, which is obviously a dream of yours, but to be in the NFL in your hometown? What has that been like for you so far?
Answer: It's surreal. Honestly, I like to think it brings a different level of pride that I have for this team just because it's my hometown team. It's the team I've always wanted to play for. How often do your dreams come true? I couldn't be more honored and grateful for this opportunity and just blessed, honestly.
Q: You're coming to the franchise as it's turning the tide. There have been some struggles in Jacksonville but the Jaguars appear headed in the right direction just as you arrive. It's a good time to be a Jaguar, right?
A: It's straight uphill trajectory. They were good last year but we're just getting better and better every practice. [Head Coach] Doug [Pederson] is a great coach. His knowledge of the ins and outs of the game is just amazing – that and his leadership help this group get the most out of their ability. You want me to keep going? The quarterback (Trevor Lawrence) isn't just an excellent player, he's a great person and leader. The defense is filled with big, strong, fast players. The Miller Electric Center is amazing. It's a good time to be a Jacksonville Jaguar, for sure.
Q: Let's talk about the offensive line. Phil Rauscher is a rising young offensive line coach who did a dramatic turnaround with this unit last year. What have you learned from him so far?
A: The NFL is all about the detail. Everybody says it's the speed, and yes, it is fast. But it's also the amount of information you have to process and the level of detail you have to pay attention to and we haven't even talked about how big and strong most of these guys are. It's easy to trust Phil because he's very good at telling you exactly what you need to do to meet his expectations and he needs to be able to trust you enough that the entire playbook is open for Trevor every Sunday. He's demanding, but in a way that motivates everyone to work harder and smarter every day.
Q: How about the move inside? You were a tackle at Appalachian State, now you're moving to guard. How hard is that, if it's hard at all, and what sort of extra work does it take?
A: I don't know that it's going to be a really difficult transition, but it's not going to be easy either. At the end of the day, it's still offensive line, it's still the fundamentals. The difference is instead of dealing with super fast and long guys, you're dealing with huge guys, very strong, very powerful guys. That's what the transition is basically. Everything happens so much faster. At guard, you're hands on. It's right there happening. There's not a lot of time or space to adjust. To be able to make that transition, you have to have quick, sudden hands. That's been the challenge for me so far but I'm getting better and staying after it every day.
Q: The pads are on. Have you had a welcome-to-the-NFL moment yet?
A: My welcome-to-the-NFL moment was the first day of pads. It was with [defensive lineman] DaVon Hamilton. We were doing one-on-ones and I jump set him in my initial set. I was on him and I was kind of running him up field, and I was like, 'OK, this is working well.' And then next thing I know, he throws his big arm and hit me with the hump move and I did like a 360. You don't realize how strong these guys are until you're actually out on the field. Getting better means figuring those things out before they happen and knowing where to have your hands and feet so that you don't get caught and embarrassed again.
Q: Anybody in the film room offer a little advice after that?
A: These guys are awesome. This group is a blessing to be around man. [Guard] Brandon [Scherff]'s a guy who has played a long time at a high level, [guard Tyler] Shatley is a wealth of information – even Fort (second-year center Luke Fortner), he's awesome. These guys are tremendous man I'm just very blessed to be with a group like these guys who are willing to bust chops but they never do it without offering some help to get better.
Q: Shatley can probably give you some of his beard game too, right? I mean, that's a point of pride with him.
A: Elite beard game, elite. Shat's a great guy. If I could model my career after Shaley, I think I would be more than blessed. He has had a great, long career – all with the Jags. He's just a great guy.
Q: Now tell me about the quarterback.
A: Trevor is a great player, but he's as good of a leader as you could ask for. He sets the pace and the tempo of the day and he's so driven to be better every day – every play, really. That rubs off on everyone else in the locker room. Plus, he's just a crazy athletic guy who can make all the throws from the pocket or on the move. He makes the hard stuff look easy, which is a testament to just how good he really is. You can see why he was the first overall pick in the draft with the way he handles the huddle, the sideline, the fans, the media, the attention. He's a great player already and I am excited to play with him.
Q: Home is Baker County, Florida. If you are enjoying this experience, this opportunity, your family must be over the moon.
A: They're probably more excited than I was. They used to have to drive eight hours to Appalachian State to watch me play and now it's 30 minutes – if that. It's fun to be around family and friends. True story: On Day Three of the draft I had a bunch of teams calling and talking to me, and then I get this 904 number on my phone and it's the Jaguars calling and I almost didn't answer it because I thought it was one of my friends prank calling me. It's still a dream for me, every single day I am honored to be out here on the field playing for the Jaguars.