Hughes Staying Busy As Spring Camp 'Coach'

He knows it is for his and the team's best. This doesn't make all the hours watching teammates practice any less frustrating for Jay Hughes. Or, interesting. "I am reeeeeal bored," Hughes said. "I was telling Deontay Evans man, I ain't got nothing to do out here!"

That isn't entirely correct. There are tasks Hughes can attend to this spring. Mainly, his continuing rehabilitation from last fall's—summer's really—injury. A ruptured Achilles is nothing to take lightly even here seven months after the sudden setback. So the veteran strong safety must content himself with trips to the training room, stints in the weightroom…and a lot of watching from sideline safety during Bulldog drills.

What some of his teammates by now would regard as a luxury just leaves Hughes, well, bored. And as noted a little frustrated for a guy who takes this game so seriously.

"The spring is where you learn it all. Coach Mullen, the main thing he emphasized to me is make sure I'm coaching the guys and what-not."

Right, coaching. That is how Hughes keeps his mind engaged during Mississippi State's spring camp. He offers his expert aid to his fellow safeties, even the entire defensive secondary. And they do well to listen to this unofficial coach because there isn't a lot Hughes hasn't seen. And done.

"All you really have to do is what the coach is telling you to do. I just reiterate that and you know, my voice has such an impact because I'm actually on the team."

None miss the twist that there is already a Coach Hughes on the official staff, and he is truly in charge of safeties. Jay's father Tony does count on his kid to help keep the group progressing, and doesn't mind if once Coach Hughes has had his say coach Jay whispers a little additional input. Or encouragement. Or whatever.

But make no mistake. He would rather be practicing to play his upcoming senior season. It just isn't allowed yet. "I'd say I'm about 85 percent," said Hughes, who expects to reach 100% sometime in summer.

"I'm not going to try to push it, I'm not going to risk anything. I'm just going to play it like I can. And what I'm doing out here is individual drills, special teams drills, I try to move a little bit. I feel like I'm moving pretty good. It can be better and that's just something I'm going to have to keep working on."

Hughes' injury came so early in the season, for that matter early in the opening game, that many almost forgot him over the course of the 2013 campaign. Or did until there was some sort of breakdown in the revised secondary. Then all saw what was missing in terms of organization and communication, as well as play-making. This was no knock on Hughes' replacement, as Kendrick Market became a solid starter in his own right and even saved a win over Kentucky with his clutch fourth-quarter tackle.

"When I first went down I didn't think it was season-ending," said Hughes of his bad landing after breaking up an Oklahoma State pass. Under contact with the taller receiver he came down the worst possible way on that foot and the Achilles just snapped. "I really thought I'd just sprained my ankle. Once I really couldn't do nothing with it, OK, this can't be good."

"Man, it was really devastating. You know, play-six, (then) everything I invested just went down the drain. But you know, we're still here and we've still got one more. So we're going to make it happen."

Meanwhile Market has handled his first-team safety status this spring just fine. More interest has been on the other job left open by Nickoe Whitley's graduation. The December test of cornerback Justin Cox as a safety has turned into a full-time move in spring and he holds the first free safety slot now. Or is it for now? Because competition continues for another three practices and two scrimmages in spring, then resumes in August thanks to the excellent and athletic depth Mississippi State has recruited.

By the way…why not let a player explain the differences in how State assigns ‘free' and ‘strong' status in this defense. "Well, I want to say the free safety gets more action than the strong safety sometimes," Hughes said, almost complaining. "But the strong safety is more of a cover guy, a coverage guy. And a lot of times when I was back there with Nickoe I'd tell him to stay at free and I'd come down and cover."

So basically, the two jobs are interchangeable; a far cry from the old 4-3 ‘umbrella' scheme where free safeties were centerfielders and strong safeties an extra linebacker. In fact it is almost as if the old labels have flipped, to where strong safety Hughes had the old identity of the free guy who was almost a ‘quarterback' on defense.

Which suits Hughes nicely, he believes. "I just try to be at the right place at the right time. It is hard to define. And like all the rest of the positions you've got to know how to tackle. You're the last line of defense." As Market showed last October, dramatically.

So, is Hughes telling Market thanks for keeping the position warm for him this spring? "Yeah, we try to keep it competitive! Me and Poke Dog, we're competitive all the time. That's my partner." But competitor, too…just as back in high school when Hughes' Oak Grove and Market's South Panola were class rivals. Years later they still keep ‘score'.

"We did win a state championship this past year, a shout-out to the state 6A champions!" said Hughes, who quarterbacked OGHS back in the day…just as Market did at times. Compare and contrast, Jay? "He didn't throw the ball, I threw the ball! I had all-purpose yards!"

The friendly competition will only improve both come preseason and provide an outstanding safety rotation in 2014. Hughes is also sold in Cox. "I love Justin at safety, man. He's just fast. He can cover a lot of ground. A whole lot of ground."

"We're all ballers, we've probably got the potential to be the best safety group in the nation."

Hughes is as noted a senior. But with just six snaps last season, a medical redshirt year is an option. He said he hasn't decided about applying just yet. "I'm going to wait to see how this year goes. I don't want to look too far ahead. I'm just going to do what I've got to do now, so that when the time comes I have that decision. And if I want it, I'll take it. And if I don't it is what it is."

There is one key to what might well be the key to any such choice. Not just how Hughes himself plays in 2014, but what a sixth season under Coach Dan Mullen brings to all Bulldogs. "I've got a championship on my mind," said Hughes.

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