FLAGSTAFF - Levar Fisher hears James Hodgins’ name and laughs.
It didn’t take long for Hodgins to make an impression on his new Cardinals teammate, especially when Fisher — a linebacker — is getting plowed over by the team’s new fullback too many times to count.
“Dude is coming through, and through so hard,” Fisher said. “And he’s always coming at me. It’s like a train wreck.”
For all the notoriety the Cards got this offseason for signing running back Emmitt Smith, for all the sighs of relief they got for changing quarterbacks to Jeff Blake, for all the knowledge they brought in by inking Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson, it was the Hodgins signing that may have been the franchise’s best move.
If you want a running game in the NFL, you need a good offensive line. The Cards think they have that. You need a good tailback, and the Cards insist their duo of Smith and Marcel Shipp is among the league’s best.
You also need a good blocking back, and the fullback of the past few years, Joel Makovicka, simply wasn’t good enough.
“I see myself as a piece to the puzzle,” said Hodgins, a bull at 6-foot-1 and 275 pounds. “We can have a great running team regardless who is the fullback.
“I definitely bring something to it, a toughness, a different mentality, and
maybe that’s what they were looking for. But I don’t want to put it all on me.”
A good rushing game no longer holds the same key to success it once did. Of the top eight rushing teams in the NFL last season, only three made the playoffs. Coach Dave McGinnis is very aware that it will be difficult for the Cards to run anyway, because teams will not fear the young group of receivers. Stacking the line against the Cards’ lone known commodity — Smith — is guaranteed.
But the Cardinals must still be able to gain yards on the ground. McGinnis, after studying teams that have success running, found that the vast majority of them use only 10 running plays most of the time. Better than half the time, those teams pare it down to six basic plays.
It’s about having good personnel and executing the plays the right way, McGinnis said.
And it helps to have a battering ram like Hodgins lead the way.
“I have learned to love (blocking),” said Hodgins, who spent the first four years of his career in St. Louis. “It is a game within itself. When I have to block this guy and he knows I have to block him, how am I going to block him? Take him high, take him low? I try to perfect it, I want to be the best at it.”
Said Smith, “He’s fundamentally sound. And that’s nice.”
Hodgins also will be used in the passing game. Offensive coordinator Jerry Sullivan told him to expect about 30 catches this season, which excites Hodgins. Too many times in St. Louis he was out of the game because they didn’t want to use him as a receiver.
Carrying the ball will be a different matter.
“We have one (fullback running) play, an option play, and Jeff likes to pitch it every time,” Hodgins says with a smile. “I won’t count on many runs. But Jeff will take care of me in the passing game.”
In the running game, Hodgins should take care of Smith and Shipp. The linebackers, as McGinnis likes to say, will be buttoning up their chinstraps a little tighter knowing Hodgins is coming through the hole.
“He’s a great player,” Fisher said. “I should know.”