"Yeah, that's the one thing Coach Mullen told me coming into the spring. You're older guy now, I need you to step up and be a leader."
Consider the challenge accepted. The opportunity, too.
Hughes isn't the oldest defensive backfield Bulldog, nor the most-seasoned if all snaps are tallied. That status belongs to senior Nickoe Whitley. But junior Hughes has taken and given his underclassman share of shots either as a backup or special teamer, or even a starter once in 2013.
Given those chances, Hughes has favorably impressed already, to the point now he is being counted on as, well, and old Dog. Put another way, he is a pup no more. Even better, he doesn't look like one this spring as the Bulldogs do their daily drills or weekend scrimmages.
Nor should he, Hughes says. "Towards the end of the season I got a lot of experience. So it helped me a lot, to just learn and communicate with everybody else, knowing what everybody else is doing."
That last part is much more important than a quick reading relates. Or until those who watched the Mississippi State secondary have some unusual, and certainly unexpected, issues during the 2012 season. The backfield was by all rights to be the strength of that defense for obvious reasons named ‘Banks' and ‘Broomfield' and ‘Slay' as well as a healthy Whitley. By any measure it was perhaps the most individually talented and tested secondarys in program history.
And yet all season opponents were able to gain ground and put up points. Not just during the last five-game stretch of heavyweights, but even non-conference clubs made plays. Passing plays more often than not. While none should point after-the-fact fingers at the secondary specifically since defense is a full-team function, there was still frustration aplenty.
Hughes understands that better than anyone. He says it wasn't so much scheme or sets or personnel. It was a talented group of guys unable to always play their own game because they weren't aware of what was happening elsewhere in the secondary. In other words, there wasn't enough talking before snaps.
"And that is really all it comes down to is communicating and knowing what your assignment is. Knowing what the guy is doing next to you." Small wonder as the season ground on State looked for folk who could communicate as well as play their positions, as well as that one ‘operator' through which all signals pass side-to-side.
So guess who is being given the chance to clear all communicating this spring? And Hughes has seen, or maybe heard, what it takes. "Because when I was younger it was Wade Bonner that was the verbal guy. Charles Mitchell was kind of like that. So that's all it is. If I'm verbal, if I'm talking it's contagious and it helps those guys focus."
Now it needs noting that even the younger Hughes had his own ideas and opinions. He just didn't see it as his proper place speaking up among senior company.
"Right, I kind of felt like that. These are NFL guys, who thinks they're going to listen to me? But at times they actually did. So I corrected them on a lot of things. And it kind of helped me grow a little bit."
Hughes is speaking from the strong safety position, while Whitley returns at free safety. Though as Hughes reminds, each is supposed to be able to handle the other's assignment at an instant's notice. Or less. "We do both." Whitley's assignment to free safety is to some degree a reflection of his high school career at quarterback, and his understanding of offense…especially run-option spread types.
Yet Hughes begs to make a point here. "That's one thing that we have in common. I played quarterback a little bit my senior year in high school. So it kind of helped me be vocal. That's where I got that from." And for the record Hughes is very happy having the hard-hitting Whitley a few steps away.
"It's good playing beside him because if I miss a tackle I know he's fixing to clean somebody out right behind me." Yes, he really did say ‘out' instead of ‘up'.
That doesn't downplay Hughes' ability to take care of business in run-support. Interestingly, he says this is an area he has emphasized all spring both for himself and his backfield peers. "There's always room for improvement. We have to tackle better. That's my main focus, anyway. And I think as a unit that's what we need to get better at is tackling."
Hughes has a point, if only based on the first scrimmage when there were gains after catches by receivers and backs. Not that the DBs were looking to take teammates out of course, but giving up extra yardage is a sure way of drawing defensive staff displeasure. This area should show improvement come Friday's second scrimmage.
"We started off a little slow. We just have to stay focused and stay consistent. That's all we're really worried about, is consistency. Young guys just learning the system, that's all."
‘Young' being relative since second safeties Dee Arrington and Kendrick Market have gotten on the game field. Redshirts Quadry Antoine and Deonte Evans more fit that label. As for the cornerbacks, everyone is an underclassman of some sort or other.
One trick Hughes has picked up on is to not just know what to do, but act like it. Talk like it. Give teammates a confident outlook that hopefully rubs-off the right way. And to his credit Hughes appears poised this spring. "And that came with experience I got at the end of last season. It helped me a lot."
"It's all about learning for the young guys. A lot of stuff I already knew, but for the young guys like Quadry and Deonte it's a whole lot going on."
A lot of different things than they saw while redshirting in fall. With Geoff Collins' promotion to full coordinator, and the increased input of defensive staff veteran Coach Hughes, the Bulldog defense is adapting day to day. Player Hughes spares the technical details though.
"You know, I could say it is a little bit more exciting. It's more exciting to play defense. We're not doing the same thing, we're not going to the middle of the field every play, we're not playing two-high every play. We're blitzing, we're coming down, we're playing man-to-man. It's a whole lot of stuff we're playing."
Along with the regular leadership duties Hughes has drawn another sort. Mullen breaks up the roster into ten different ‘team' that to a degree self-select. And boy, has Hughes ended up with an interesting combination. "I have Nick James and Quay Evans on my team. So I have a workload!" But didn't he do it to himself?
"Actually that wasn't my call, that was a Nickoe call." The MSU-mind boggles at what must happen when these Bulldogs get together. Meanwhile Hughes and team can almost see the end of spring training, a week from Saturday.
"We've just got finish strong. Somebody told me the spring is where you fail. If you're going to fail it's got to be in the spring. You don't want to be running around like a chicken with your head cut off in the fall camp, that ain't designed for that. This is the best time for us to learn. And we're going to do it. We're going to be alright."
State has a 4:00 Thursday practice scheduled, though the weather forecast could force work indoors. Friday's outlook is clear and sunny for a 3:30 scrimmage at Scott Field, open to the public.