On this day, Gerald Hodges is conflicted.

The second-year outside linebacker could get the biggest opportunity of his young Vikings career Sunday. That's why, when asked about potentially making his first NFL start, he can't help but sheepishly grin, the glimmering gold on his bottom row of teeth grabbing your attention by the facemask.

But then the 23-year-old thinks about Chad Greenway, the veteran mentor who, whether Greenway was aware of it or not, has been grooming Hodges to perhaps one day replace him as a starter.

If a busted hand and a broken rib finally sideline Greenway, who missed practice again Thursday and whose status is in doubt for Sunday's home game against the Atlanta Falcons, the proverbial next man up will likely be Hodges.

"I've been waiting for this time for a long time," Hodges said. "It's no knock on Chad. I hope he's fine and everything. And I know he'll be fine. Everything I've learned here, I've learned the majority of that through him in the meeting room and just picking his brain and seeing how he works. That helps me a lot to get me ready to play."

In terms of playing time, Hodges had a small role for the Vikings this season, playing mostly on third downs before filling in for Greenway on the final drive of last week's 20-9 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Hodges has played 38 of the team's 208 defensive snaps. Fifteen Vikings defenders have played more snaps, and nine have at least three times as many.

But don't you dare tell coach Mike Zimmer that Hodges' role is insignificant.

Zimmer has utilized Hodges in his sub packages, often asking him to drop into space and keep tabs on tight ends, running backs or sometimes even wide receivers. Hodges has made the most of those limited snaps. In Week 1, three of his four tackles were on third down, forcing punts. And through three games, Hodges has 12 solo tackles and a team-high two tackles for a loss.

"A good thing about Gerald is he's athletic and physical and can run," Zimmer said. "Usually he has a knack for the football. I love having guys that are athletes out on the field. We'll continue to use him and keep bringing him along at the right tempo, I guess, or the right way."

Hodges was a four-star quarterback recruit coming out of Paulsboro High School in New Jersey. He started his Penn State career as a safety but moved to linebacker as a true freshman after the Nittany Lions suffered injuries at the position.

Extra experience

The Vikings drafted Hodges, twice an All-Big Ten honoree, in the fourth round in 2013 in large part because of his cover skills and short-area quickness, which were must-have traits in their Cover 2 defensive scheme. Of course, in today's NFL, if you're a linebacker who can defend the pass, you can find a role on any defense.

Perhaps the most significant thing that Hodges has learned in his young career is that players can rarely get by on athleticism alone in the NFL. Most of the league's wide receivers on a good day can run the 40-yard dash in under 4.6 seconds, and many running backs and tight ends are faster than your typical college wideout.

"I used to get confused with my ability thinking that my ability would take me far, not realizing that everybody in the NFL has ability," Hodges said.

Hodges, who played just two defensive snaps as a rookie but was a core player on special teams, also realized that not everyone makes the most of that ability.

So he has vowed to not be one of those underachievers, which is why he sits next to Greenway in meetings and takes notes on everything he does, including how he takes notes.

Still improving

Greenway, meanwhile, has always been wowed by what Hodges can do athletically, and now he is seeing him make more progress in the meeting rooms and film sessions.

"He's done some stuff in practice that is just so impressive. You can tell he has so much ability," Greenway said. "All of us at one point were just learning the system and what they're asking us to do and then putting it to work. That's where he's at, and he's come a long way … and when asked to go in, he's done well."

And while Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards have both recently said that they need to "keep our thumb on him," the coaching staff seems to be pleased with Hodges and how his improved practice habits have made a difference for him on game days.

Hodges is excited that his role is expanding, though he knows he needs to continue to grow if he wants to be a full-time starter based on his performance alone, and not injuries to a teammate.

"If I were playing perfect, I would be out there as a starter," Hodges said. "So I just try to improve in every little way so I can get out on the field more."