He enrolled in the College of Arts & Letters and, prior to his junior year, chose sociology as his chief field of study prior.
The senior running back has shown far less certainty declaring his collegiate running style.
Prior to the 2009 season, former head coach Charlie Weis noted that Hughes "has to choose one style: run them over or make them miss."
Hughes has the build of a classic college bruiser, but he's never featured the necessary style, consistently maintained a low pad level, or shown the willingness to embrace the thankless role of a between-the-tackles brute.
Is Hughes a one-cut back that will thrive with less traffic in the middle thanks to the team's new spread offense? Or should he serve as the team's power back in short-yardage situations?
Before you play the role of Hughes' football guidance counselor, consider the following:
Between his freshman season of 2007 and sophomore year of '08, Hughes converted just 7 of 19 3rd or 4th and short opportunities (defined as two yards or fewer) into first downs or touchdowns. (A 3 for 4 effort vs. an awful Duke team is included.)
As a junior in '09, Hughes (and the offensive line) enjoyed more success in those situations, converting 6 of 9 attempts while fumbling once.
But a true between-the-tackles runner must do more than convert short-yardage opportunities at just under a 50 percent clip. He needs to churn out enough 4, 5, and 6-yard runs that the offense isn't face with 2nd and 8 or 2nd and 7 too often through the course of a contest.
Over his three-year career, Hughes has touched the ball from scrimmage 289 times. He's gained two or fewer yards on 94 of those touches. And that total doesn't include touchdown plunges or any of the the successful short-yardage conversions detailed above.
Staying Involved – Physically and MentallyNow the flip side. Hughes touched the ball 107 times last season. He produced a first down on 33 of those opportunities
He has the three longest career runs from scrimmage of any back on the Irish roster (45, 44, and 37 yards). He accounted for three receptions in excess of 20 yards last season – the total his competitors Armando Allen, Jonas Gray (and Theo Riddick) combined for as a trio last season.
He had 12 carries in excess of 10 yards in '09 (or one every 7.3 rushing attempts). First-string RB and the player largely accepted as the offense's most improved player last season, Armando Allen, finished with 18 such carries, but in 54 more attempts or one every 7.8 carries.
Can Hughes be a top-notch goal line back? He converted six of his nine carries inside the 3-yard line last year into touchdowns (including a two-point conversion). But he also fumbled, lost yardage, and was knocked out on his feet at the goal on the three failed attempts.
In fact, each of Hughes' three career fumbles have occurred inside the opponents' 7-yard line.
He possesses quick feet for a big back, but lacks breakaway speed. He's generally successful near the goal line – unless of course he loses the football.
He's the team's biggest back, but also recorded the longest run and second-longest reception from scrimmage among the group last season.
Confused as to what type of ‘back Robert Hughes will or should be? Join the club.
Hughes' 2010 Season OutlookTwo staffs, the former and current, have both deemed Armando Allen as the team's lead back heading into their respective August training camps. (Irrelevant in every instance but to this column, I tend to agree.)
The pertinent question for 2010: does Hughes still have a style choice to make, or has it been made for him?
You can count on the latter, as the Brian Kelly regime has yet to show any semblance of democratic practice, but I don't doubt that role can and will evolve.
Currently slotted as a "fullback" Hughes is neither the team's best lead blocker (Bobby Burger holds that distinction), nor is he a leg-driver, or pile-mover as a true inside runner.
In my mid-December meeting with the new Irish head coach, Brian Kelly shared that he prides himself on getting the most from his players, stating he's less interested in a player's weaknesses than in finding a way in which that player can help the team improve.
That statement – made four months prior to his first official practice with the team – leads me to believe that, in addition to a role in the goal line package with Burger, you'll see Hughes in the spread offense's solo-back sets next season. The goal will be to involve Hughes in the passing game and also afford him a chance to get those quick feet and that big body moving forward in space, as Robert Hughes the downhill runner is far more impressive than Hughes the battering ram.
There is, however, one likely stumbling block for Hughes if he's unable to earn early season carries.
He tends to play poorly when not afforded many touches.
Over his three-year career, Hughes has averaged 5.74 yards-per-carry when he accumulates at least 9 touches (rushes or receptions) in a game. When he touches the rock fewer than 9 times in a game, Hughes' rushing average drops to 2.94.
In other words, whether it's catching the ball, running as the solo back, or both, Hughes is far more effective than as a change-of-pace or spot-duty player.
Can Hughes earn 9-10 touches per game with three backfield competitors, including impressive redshirt-freshman Cierre Wood, champing at the bit for consistent snaps?
After three years, its time for Hughes to declare his major mode of transport on the football field.
Hughes' Best Moments of 2009
- Purdue (2nd Quarter): After appearing in mop-up time vs. Nevada, not at all at Michigan, and sparingly vs. Michigan State, Hughes ran with a vengeance in a backup role (to Jonas Gray) in West Lafayette, rushing for gains of 20, 8, 7, and a 2-yard score on his first four carries before finishing the contest with 77 all-purpose yards in the 24-21 win. Hughes' 2nd Quarter outburst was his best, consistent effort since the tail-end of the 2007 season.
- Washington: One week later, Hughes entered the contest for an injured Armando Allen and produced 2nd half carries of 15, 12, and 37 yards, while adding a 25-yard reception, a key late 2-point conversion to help preserve overtime, and the game-winning TD plunge in the extra session. Hughes' 37-yard rush was the longest by an Irish running back last season and the longest since Hughes' twice carried for more than 40 yards in the 2007 season-finale at Stanford.
- Washington State: In his first start of the season, Hughes scored a touchdown and totaled a career-best of 182 yards (131 rushing) on a career-high 28 touches in the blowout victory over the Cougars.
- Stanford: Freshman Theo Riddick earned the start but Hughes again starred in relief, finishing with 17 touches for 124 total yards (74 rushing) including a season-high 9 carries in excess of 7 yards.
Hughes' Moments to Forget in 2009
- Boston College: Trailing 16-13 early in the 4th Quarter, Hughes lined up as the team's Wildcat quarterback on 4th and Goal from the Eagles 1-yard line. The junior's foray through the line was stopped short of the goal, courtesy of a vicious blow from BC safety Marcellus Bowman. The hit dropped Hughes in his tracks and sent him wobbling to the sidelines for the duration of the contest.
- Navy: Trailing 14-0 early in the 2nd Quarter and facing 1st and Goal from teh Midshipmen 4-yard line, Hughes lost 2 yards on an ill-advised sweep. He gained just 1-yard on the following snap and two incomplete passes later, the Irish come up empty in the red zone on the first of four occasions during the upset loss.
- Pittsburgh: Hughes was withheld from action after accounting for 79 yards on 13 touches (with a touchdown) the previous week vs. Navy. The Irish totaled just 66 yards on 25 carries vs. the Panthers 17th-ranked rush defense.