November 28, 2014

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Browns’ Hodges stays in Cleveland during bye to focus on punting

BEREA — The majority of the Browns used their bye week to take mini-vacations to much warmer locations.

Punter Reggie Hodges, though, remained in Northeast Ohio with his family and stayed focused on his job.

“At my position, there is no room for error — you absolutely have to perform at a high level,” he said. “There are no days off from the time you report to training camp until the end of the season.

“Now, physically, this bye came at a perfect time because everybody needs it after nine weeks. It’s been a real, real grind. But forget about football, even for a day? No, you just can’t do that.”

Hodges, 30, appreciates the here-today, gone-tomorrow atmosphere of his profession better than almost anyone in the 32-team league.

After being picked by St. Louis in the sixth round of the 2005 NFL Draft, he was cut nine times by seven franchises (St. Louis, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Seattle, New England, New York Jets and Tennessee) before landing his first full-time gig with Cleveland in 2009.

The Ball State product then saw his career flash before his eyes last Aug. 2, when he tore his left Achilles tendon during a routine special teams drill in Berea, but returned to action this year and reclaimed his spot on the squad.

“I knew there would be an adjustment period getting back in the flow, but everything has gone about the way I expected,” said Hodges, whose 42.7-yard average ranks 28th in the NFL.

“The rehab process was long and difficult, like the doctors said it would be, but you have to fight through it. I was ready to go long before we had to report to camp.”

Throughout his comeback, Hodges relied on his faith and his wife Arin for strength. The devout father of two — son Christian and daughter Charlee — is passionate about his ministry.

Ironically, he also spent a good deal of time talking with the man whose spot he took on the Browns. Bay High graduate Dave Zastudil suffered a torn right patella in 2009, leading to Hodges’ signing eight games into that season.

Zastudil landed on his feet, figuratively, and leads the NFL with 59 punts this year for the Arizona Cardinals. Hodges is second with 55, while Jacksonville’s Bryan Anger is third with 49.

“Dave and I are really close, and we punted together a couple of times in the offseason,” Hodges said. “Even though I didn’t know of any punters who had the same injury I had, Dave had a long rehab from his injury and made sure I didn’t get frustrated.

“Look at him now, he’s two years out from his recovery and he’s just hammering the ball (averaging a career-best 46.2 yards). That gives me confidence that I will be even better next season.”

Fortunately for Hodges, he should have seven more games this year to impress Cleveland’s new management team of president Joe Banner and owner Jimmy Haslam III.

After going through a rocky spell in mid-October that prompted Browns coach Pat Shurmur to publicly criticize him, the 6-foot, 220-pounder has rebounded strongly.

Hodges tied his career high with nine punts against San Diego on Oct. 28, helping Cleveland win the field position battle and the game, 7-6. That outing came on a rainy day with sustained winds of more than 20 mph.

One week later, Hodges was rock-solid on four punts against Baltimore on the water-logged, chewed-up field at Cleveland Browns Stadium. His net average topped the magic 40.0-yard mark at 40.8, while he kept the Ravens pinned in their end of the field.

“I was hit or miss there for a few games, believe me, I understand that,” he said. “We’ve played in rain five times this year — three with 35 mph wind gusts to make it even tougher — and it wasn’t easy finding the winds and kicking through them.

“I feel like I’ve gotten in a good groove now, which is why I’m making sure I don’t lose my rhythm during this five or six days off. When we get back to practice Monday, I want to pick up right where I was in the Baltimore game and build on it.”

Contact Brian Dulik at brisports@hotmail.com.