Hughes Has Opening-Night Homecoming

Yeah, we can reasonably say Tony Hughes knows something about the University of Southern Mississippi. “I went to school there, played there, graduated from there. I met my wife there.”

Now this Class of ’80 member returns to his old school with both fond memories and an opposing football team. Hughes is preparing Mississippi State safeties directly and assisting with defensive game-planning as the Bulldogs and Southern Miss kick it off at 9:00 Saturday.

It won’t be the first time Hughes has worked as a coach in Roberts Stadium. This former Golden Eagle defensive back turned two shifts as a USM coach, a graduate aide in 1984-85 while adding his masters degree and again in 2008 running the secondary. It was a short but productive return.

“And working with Coach (Larry) Fedora when he started was a pleasant experience to coach at your alma mater which a lot of people have a dream of doing. It was something I enjoyed at the time.”

Times change. Coaches change addresses and game gear. Fedora himself moved on too and a couple of coaching changes later the Golden Eagles are rebuilding in Todd Monken’s third season. The first two years were, bluntly, brutal for a once-proud program.

Hughes however sees signs of progress, particularly on an offensive staff that deserves respect for game scheming and play selection. If a bunch of older and a few newer players fit in quickly, the Bulldog defense is in for some interesting opening-day challenges. Many, unpredictable and thus un-scoutable.

What Mississippi State can scout are past tendencies. Hughes’ 2014 safeties certainly did their part in shutting down and ultimately out the Eagles in last year’s 49-0 romp on Scott Field. And while the Dog D is under new coordination this season, Manny Diaz was running the Louisiana Tech squad which beat USM last year in a competitive contest.

So, “Basically everybody in the room has seen Southern Miss in the last year,” Hughes said. But this is a new year, too. Both Diaz and Hughes see some shifts in the Eagle offense as players develop or arrive. “How much is going to change and continue to be Coach Monken’s offense, that’s the unknown of playing. I guess like Coach Diaz says, they’ve got the right to change if they want to!”

What does not and will never change at Mississippi State is the core defensive goal. The Bulldogs head to Hattiesburg intending to stuff the run game, same as any matchup. Or any offensive style come to think of it.

“That’s our philosophy. I know everybody runs the spread and the no-huddle and the tempo offenses. But it all comes back to running the football. And you have to be able to stop the run and be more efficient against the run. That’s something we’ve always prided ourselves on.”

For his part Hughes can be justly proud of his work at Mississippi State. Not just setting safeties but as associate head coach and recruiting coordinator. The impressive, even startling upgrade to Bulldog rosters over the past six seasons is in no small part a reflection of Hughes’ own work and how Dan Mullen’s staff locates, recruits, signs and then develops players.

Many of them right from Hughes’ own old address. The Pine Belt has provided plenty of players over the years, and if Hughes left Hattiesburg after 2008 he does recognize much of the Eagle roster.

“You know a lot of the kids there that you recruited or some of our players were teammates with. Local kids from that area that we might have recruited in the past few years. There’s familiarity any time you play an in-state team.”

By coincidence, Hughes is currently grooming a couple of freshman safeties who hail from addresses within a few punts of Hattiesburg. To be sure the opening-game duty falls first to veterans Kendrick Market, Kivon Coman, Deontay Evans, and then redshirt Brandon Bryant.

But Collins’ Mark McLaurin and Bassfield native Jamal Peters aren’t just a couple of potential-loaded pups. They could be the ‘next wave’ of safeties at State, a little taller and longer and heavier than has been the norm at this Bulldog position.

Could the newest kids find their ways onto the field on opening night? Probably not…but Mullen’s history shows he won’t hesitate to put a properly-prepared freshman in action ASAP.

“And Coach Mullen talks about his all the time, we won’t put a kid in a situation until we feel he’s ready and that he feels he’s ready,” Hughes said. “The last thing you want is put him a situation and something doesn’t go well, and now you have a confidence factor you’re dealing with.”

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