The Cincinnati Bengals were lined up at the Washington Commanders' 3-yard line with an eye on punching the ball into end zone on their opening drive, but Khaleke Hudson made sure their ensuing play was blown up before it began.
Hudson, lined up outside of the Bengals' attached tight end on the right side of the formation, picked up on the play immediately. He shrugged past the Bengals' Y-back, broke down for a split second and wrapped up Chase Brown in the backfield long enough for two more defenders to pile on the running back for a four-yard loss. Hudson got up and flexed in celebration before jogging back to the huddle.
Plays like that have become more common for Hudson, who has spent the last calendar year trying to become a more regular contributor for the Commanders' defense. At this point last season, Hudson was on the team's practice squad after being cut in his third season. Now, he's one of the four linebackers the Commanders kept on the active roster, and the work he's done to improve his skill set has not gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.
"I think it's confidence more than anything else," said head coach Ron Rivera. "He really had a very good training camp this year and he gave us a lot of confidence being able to keep four [linebackers] knowing his versatility, but also knowing he's grown so much as a player."
The Washington Commanders began preparations for their Week 1 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. Check out the top photos from Wednesday afternoon. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
Versatility was part of what made Hudson so appealing when Washington used a fifth-round pick on him in 2020. He played Michigan's "Viper" position, a SAM/nickel hybrid role that requires players to blitz quarterbacks, operate as a traditional linebacker and drop back in coverage.
A player like that seemed to be a natural fit for a team like the Commanders, who emphasize position flexibility on defense, but the results on the field were uneven. Hudson did have his moments during his first two seasons -- eight tackles in 2020 against the Seattle Seahawks and three stop in the 2021 17-15 win over the Las Vegas Raiders -- but they were far too infrequent, as Hudson was mostly a special teams contributor during that time.
In 2022, Hudson was released in favor of players like Milo Eifler and De'Jon Harris. The team still believed in his development, which is why the Commanders signed him to the practice squad and elevated him in Week 5, but it still took time for him to prove himself.
For the past year, Hudson's mindset has been to keep moving forward.
"Stay consistent, and just keep trusting the process and just keep controlling what I can control," Hudson said.
In Week 18, Hudson got the chance to start -- his first opportunity since Week 12 of the 2021 season -- in the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys, and the linebacker ended up being one of the more impressive defensive players in the 26-6 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. He played all 67 of the defensive snaps, recording seven tackles and a quarterback hit.
Months later, Hudson's coaches are still talking about Hudson's performance.
"I think gained a little bit of confidence from that last outing against Dallas," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said in June. "He went out there and played really well, and so he's coming to the offseason full of energy and getting a lot of reps because Jamin is not going."
Rivera believes the way Hudson played showed the coaching staff that Hudson can be more than just a special teams player.
"He flew around, he made plays, he was physical at the point of attack," Rivera said. "He played fast, he played confident, and you could feel that."
Hudson had plenty of opportunities to show how much he improved in the offseason. Jamin Davis missed most of OTAs dealing with clean up surgery, meaning that Hudson received all of the starting reps.
Once again, Hudson flashed, and plays like blowing a screen and corralling Brian Robinson Jr. for a loss in practice showed off his athleticism. Hudson was "flying around," Rivera said, and playing with a positive attitude. He was also being moved around the field more often as he learned different positions.
"We've noticed," Rivera said of Hudson. "We've noticed an improvement, and we've noticed a guy also playing with confidence as well."
Against the Bengals, Hudson only played in 17 snaps but made the most of his time on the field. On Cincinnati's second drive, Hudson fought through a block on a screen play and tackled Brown for another loss, bringing up fourth down at the Bengals' 17-yard line.
Hudson knows he can always be better, but he felt that he had "a very good night."
"I feel like when the plays were there, I did my best to make the plays," Hudson said in the locker room. "Just playing for my teammates, playing for my coaches, playing for my family. That's what I do it for."
And Hudson reemphasized how important it is for him to stay consistent.
"I was just trusting what our requirements are for each play on defense, doing whatever my job was...and just playing fast," Hudson said. "I feel like I had a really good camp, had really good OTAs and just keeping it going is my goal."
If Hudson can do that, then nights like the one he had against the Cowboys and Bengals will come more often.
"That's what you're looking for from him," Rivera said. "And I think he can do that."