Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis was certainly impressed when he laid eyes on Hughes for the first time in person.
"I thought he was a big muchacho for a running back," head coach Charlie Weis said with a laugh. "I didn't have guys like the Bus and things like that when I was coaching, but I did have Corey Dillon and I did have Antwone Smith, so I did have a couple of 230-and-change guys that I have dealt with in my career. Usually, they end up being big, good durable backs. The fact that he has those other talents that we talked about gives him the opportunity to be something special."
Irish fans got a taste of what Weis is talking about last Saturday.
On the Chicago product's first career carry against Michigan State, the first guy Weis referenced, the Bus, Irish great Jerome Bettis that is, was who Hughes looked like, and will often be compared to for the next three or four years he dons a Notre Dame jersey. Following a turnover that gave the Irish the ball on the Spartans' nine-yard line, Hughes bulldozed his way towards the end zone, pushing the pile to the one-yard line before finally being brought down.
"Just an energy just hit me where I felt like everything was just like a big blur," Hughes described it. "I just knew to run with my natural instinct and my vision, and I tried to do the best I could do."
Hughes thought process was working on overdrive when quarterback Jimmy Clausen called the play in the huddle.
"I was just like, remember what you've got to do," Hughes said with a laugh.
Hughes looked like he remembered what to do all afternoon. He played sparingly in Notre Dame's first three games, but he definitely got his chance to shine against Michigan State. His number was called six times for 33 yards, including a three-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, cutting the Spartans' lead to 17-14.
"I knew the time would come where the coach would call my number," Hughes said. "I just wanted to make the best of the opportunity I had offhand.
"Just seeing everybody get excited and at that time we made it a three-point game. We really rallied around that, and it just felt great that we were back in the game."
Hughes thought for a second his first-career score was going to come earlier on the drive. On the Michigan State 23-yard line, Hughes took the carry, made a cut outside and started streaking down the sideline. He was knocked out of bounds at the six-yard line by a couple defenders. "In high school that probably would've been a score, but in college the speed of the game changed and the DBs had a great angle," Hughes said. As a senior at Hubbard High, he rushed for 1,780 yards and 22 touchdowns, and was selected to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
The speed of the game, the physical level of play, the tons of reads, many assignments and all other tasks and details have been a huge learning process for Hughes. He has adapted well, but there is plenty to learn. Sometimes Weis can still see Hughes' brain turning instead of him just letting loose.
"Robert has a lot of athletic ability for a guy that is 235 pounds," Weis said. "He's got good wheels, he's got good vision, he's tough, he has good hands, but the thing is when you have to think about what you are doing, it's different than when you just turn it loose. As we have gone through from training camp on, you start to see him get better and better and better. A lot of it has to do with pre-snap read, having a good idea where he thinks the ball will end up based off the front. I think he has become a much, much better player.
"He's always run physically for us, but sometimes doesn't run where you are supposed to run. A team lines up in a certain front and there's an area based off a front, you usually have an area where the ball is going to if it's an inside run. Usually, but if someone is inexperienced, if they are used to like when they were in high school they just hand you the ball and turn you loose. It's not like it is designed to go to one spot. It's like you go find an opening and get us a bunch of yards. He has become a much better running back at understanding where the ball is supposed to go."With that, and with Notre Dame still trying to establish its identity as a power-running team, the big muchacho will likely find the ball in his hand much more as the season goes on.