Hughes Has Greater Say In State Secondary

The trick, is the talk. Oh, not that defensive backs are shy. These chatty types will go on and on and on just because that's what they do. The difference to Jay Hughes is that what gets said in this secondary…says something.

And so far the preseason word is encouraging on this count. "It's gotten a lot better. Even the coaches have said it, that they see people talking on the field more."

Even better the verbiage is resulting in a defensive backfield with a better idea what the plan is. This is where Hughes comes to the forefront. The junior strong safety is being counted on for a primary leadership role in the 2013 secondary.

It's a responsibility that Hughes has assumed almost naturally. Which might not be a surprise for someone who is not only a college coach's son but that of Mississippi State safeties coach Tony Hughes. Forget any notion of favoritism in this depth charting. The younger Hughes has had to earn his place atop the depth chart the old-fashioned way.

Now to keep it requires Hughes be a little bit more than a player. He is to be a leader of course, that is assumed. It is the communications coming through him that is Hughes' assignment. Sort of a ‘switchboard' for the secondary along with free safety Nickoe Whitley if you get right down to it.

During spring ball Hughes showed he was ready for the responsibility, assuming his position without muss or fuss and helping develop a revamped backfield. Nobody claims the process is completed just yet but indications are positive. At least per Hughes, who ought to know what he's talking about.

"We're doing good, we're coming along. We've been grinding man, we've been grinding."

What these Dog defensive backs are grinding away at is a perception. "Everybody says we're the weakest part of the defense or the team or whatever," said Hughes. "We ain't trying to hear that." Yet hear it they must for a while longer, until proven otherwise.

And Hughes understands where such an opinion is coming from. Graduating two second-round draft selections to NFL rosters, along with a third cornerback who started most of '12 as strong safety, takes an amount of experience off the career chart no college club could automatically replace. Besides, what outsiders are going to see is no returning star power in the secondary.

So yeah, Hughes can see where such an image comes from. Which doesn't mean liking it at all. He'd rather analysts change their rating from ‘weak' to just plain ‘young' as a more accurate identity. If outsiders don't recognize many of these names that can be corrected in time by a group playing as, well, as a group rather than relying on individuals.

"I like that. Because it just seems everybody is on one accord. Not taking nothing away from Banks and Slay, they were great. It's just that everybody is like this, we do everything together, hang out and eat together."

Which is well and good as far as camaraderie. What are the more tangible strengths in State's defensive backfield this year as Hughes sees –and hears—them? For one thing, "We're good at communicating, everybody is always in the right spot. We've just got some bits and pieces that we've got to put together."

Also, "Everybody is fast. Slay was kind of fast…" Hughes paused then "Real fast! But Cedric and Cox actually run 4.3 forties and Love, too. It ain't like they're going to throw the ball over our head every play." And if opponents want to try that, go ahead. In fact Hughes expects this until they've proven capable of covering.

"That's what they're going to say about any position, it isn't just us. When Fletcher Cox left the d-line was the ‘weakest part'. So it's just, talk." And that kind of talk can be tuned-out until these Dogs have their own say on the live stage next weekend in Houston.

Speaking of which, if ever an opener was arranged to truly test a restocked secondary this Bulldog debut is it. Oklahoma State is a consensus contender in their Big XII conference based on some pretty proven personnel in the passing game. The Cowboys are no one-trick pony to be sure, but it is in the air that their reputation has been earned.

Now that the Bulldogs have transitioned from training camp to specific game preparations, Hughes has been able to begin scouting the first foe.

"They're fast. The tempo is what Coach was telling us, that they're just going to go fast." And where anyone can try to play fast, OSU has the talent to make it count, or so Hughes is hearing. "That's all everybody has been talking about, they say they're better than Blackmon and Bryant were. If that's true we've got to take care of some business!"

Interestingly, Hughes and his cohorts are more energized about such a first-game matchup than they would be the usual sort of opener Mississippi State has scheduled before. It's the knowing that they, the defensive backs, are in Oklahoma State's cross-hairs which has kept their preseason attention. Or even back in spring ball for that matter.

"And that's one reason I think it's going to be good for the secondary. You know, for them saying we're the youngest part of the team."

At the same time the youngest part must grow up really fast here. This is where Hughes accepts a greater responsibility as something like a coach on the field. He got a taste of such stuff last November when inserted into the lineup in place of a senior. He played well enough, it was asserting himself in the huddle that took a little time for obvious age reasons.

"I just learned to step up as a leader. Now the young guys listen to me, if I tell them to pick it up they're going to pick it up, go hard. It's hard to tell Banks and Slay that! So I've come along, the end of the season helped me develop as a player."

Now he can see the same sorts of development in his meeting room, especially among the cornerbacks he's communicating with. "A lot of them have come along in training camp. Like Coxie (Justin Cox) has picked it up, and Cedric Jiles. For the most part it's good, we're going to be alright." It also helps greatly to think that the defensive linemen look to be an improved group in both overall athleticism and schemes. Because nothing helps coverage on the back end than an aggressive front line.

"That's the key. When they get pressure we get interceptions and we get turnovers."

In not too many more days the Bulldogs turn over their schedule from pre- to real-season. Hughes has been through this August drill a few times before and knows the practice score. This time it is different though, and not just because his own place in the season's plans are different. The combination of a ‘showdown' sort of opener and the raised overall expectations for 2013 has the adrenalin going. Right now.

"I can feel it," Hughes said. "I actually felt it today when I stepped on the practice field. I had in mind that I was going to have a good day, and I did."

Now if Hughes and Company can carry those good days onto the field for real, they will really have something good to talk about.

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