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After waiting turn, Richie James & Isaiah Hodgins step up


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Richie James and Isaiah Hodgins grew up on opposite sides of the country, but the paths they traveled to become Giants players are strangely similar.

They were prolific college wide receivers who watched more than 200 players get chosen in their respective drafts before they were selected. Their early NFL careers were marked by infrequent opportunities, frustration, and entire seasons lost to injury. They were let go by their original teams.

And this season they have surprisingly become indispensable contributors on the Giants' wideout corps.

"I had to learn that you definitely have to wait your turn in this league," James said this week. "You kind of learn to ride the wave, as (quarterback) Tyrod (Taylor) said. Take it one day at a time, and then when the opportunity does come, you've got to take full advantage of it. Over my time, I definitely became impatient. But I knew as long as you stay with it and stay with the gameplan, I'd be perfectly fine."

"There's been a lot of things in my life that have happened that have kind of forced me to be patient," Hodgins said. "In a time where it seems like it's going to take forever and (I'm asking), 'Is it ever going to work out?' Learning to stay patient has really helped me mature as a man, as a father, as a football player – just everything."

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The Giants are enjoying the benefits. James and Hodgins are tied for the team lead with four touchdown receptions. James, who joined the Giants as a free agent last March, is tied with Saquon Barkley with a team-high 57 receptions for 569 yards. Hodgins was acquired on Nov. 2 during the Giants' bye week and has caught 33 passes for 351 yards. They have combined with Darius Slayton – who has a team-high 724 yards on 46 receptions, including two touchdowns – to give the Giants an unexpected trio of invaluable receivers.

"They've done a tremendous job being in the right spot, executing, playing really hard in both the run and the pass game," offensive coordinator Mike Kafka said. "They're detail guys, they're smart guys that you really trust that are dependable and tough. (Wide receivers) Coach (Mike) Groh does a good job, really not just with those three guys but it's been a bunch of guys that have contributed in that area, too. I'm proud of that group, they've done a nice job."

James grew up in Sarasota, Fla, where he was a standout receiver and quarterback at Riverview High School. In his first two seasons (2015-16) at Middle Tennessee State, he was one of the nation's most productive wideouts, totaling 213 catches, 2,971 yards and 20 touchdowns. James was on his way to another big year as a junior when he broke his collarbone against Marshall and missed the remainder of the season.

San Francisco selected him 240th overall in the 2018 draft. "From what I was hearing, I was getting fourth-round grades," James said. "But I broke my collarbone twice before I left. Everybody dropped in that class. It was tough, but five years later, I'm still in here."

In his first two seasons, James was the 49ers' leading punt and kickoff returner but caught only 15 passes. That total rose to 23 in 2020 when his return duties were reduced. But in 2021, he spent the entire season on injured reserve after undergoing knee surgery. Convinced he needed to change organizations, James signed with the Giants. "I wanted a completely fresh start," he said.

He found it. James caught 14 passes in the first three games. He then had a six-game stretch in which he totaled six receptions, including two in a row with no catches. The first of them was the Giants' loss in Seattle when he lost two fumbles on punt returns. James rebounded from that rough outing and in the last seven games has 37 catches – including a season-high eight at Minnesota -- and scored all four of his touchdowns. He also has all but one of the Giants' 14 punt returns, for a 7.3-yard average.

According to the NFL, James has caught 81.4% of his targets (57 of 70) this season, the highest percentage by any wide receiver with 70+ targets since Michael Thomas and Tyler Lockett in 2018.

About that fresh start – "I feel like I made the right choice, honestly," James said.

Hodgins didn't have an option because the Giants claimed him on waivers after he was released by the Bills. But he's just as happy to be here.

He is part of a football family. Hodgins' father, James, was a running back for three NFL teams for seven seasons and played for the St. Louis Rams in their Super Bowl XXXIV victory against Tennessee.

Isaiah's football journey began in earnest at Berean Christian High School in northern California where he caught 188 passes and scored 44 touchdowns in his last two seasons. In his third and final year at Oregon State, Hodgins had 86 receptions and his 20 career touchdowns tied for the second-most in school history.

Hodgins was selected late in the sixth round, No. 207 overall, in the 2020 draft. He essentially lost his first two seasons, spending his debut year on injured reserve with a torn labrum that required surgery and his second with a torn posterior cruciate ligament that limited him to one game and four offensive snaps.

Hodgins finally caught this first four career passes in Buffalo's Week 5 victory against Pittsburgh – and was cut three weeks later.

"I was a little shocked, definitely, when I got released because it came out of nowhere," Hodgins said. "I was on the active roster for five, six weeks before it happened. I thought that I was going to end the season there, and it was going to be smooth sailing. Then some injuries happened, and they had to move some roster spots around. The plan was to get me back on the practice squad and activate me a couple weeks later. But the Giants came in and scooped me up, so it was a bit of a surprise. But it worked out for the better."

With the Giants, he was reunited with Brian Daboll, who was the Bills' offensive coordinator his first two seasons. Hodgins knew the offense and could hit the field running.

"Everyone kind of took me in and was helping me learn the building, learn the new place, learn how things get done here," he said. "The coaches and players did a good job of taking me in and just making my transition real smooth."

Hodgins had two receptions for 41 yards in his Giants debut against Houston on Nov. 13 and has caught no fewer than three passes in every game since. Like James, his most productive game was against the Vikings, against whom he had career-high totals of eight catches for 89 yards, including a touchdown. He has scored in four of the last five games.

"I'm just grateful for the opportunity," Hodgins said. "It means a lot knowing that it's a long time coming, and I kind of had to wait my turn and be patient from being on the practice squad to being released a bunch of times to being hurt, but I just stayed close to God and my family that whole time. And He never left my side, and I knew that my time would come. And that's why I stayed working hard, and I didn't lose faith in that. And I just waited my turn, just knowing that eventually my time and my opportunity was going to come. And it came here, and I was prepared and ready for it. It's just kind of surreal to think back even on that and look at how much my life changed in a year. It's cool to see."

Richie James surely agrees.


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