The 180-pound six-footer has rooted himself in the starting lineup and emerged, arguably, as one of the best cornerbacks in perhaps the best college football conference in America. He has 26 tackles, an interception, five pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble in six games on the season. But to hear Huffman tell it, his supernova explosion onto the scene is just a matter of experience at the division one level.
"I was young last year. First college season last year. So just coming with more experience, you know, I'm playing a little bit better, and the more games I get under my belt, the more I'll continue to improve."
If Huffman's early development into a "lock-down" cornerback is a harbinger of things to come, then the Raiders may have a powerhouse on the corner for the next two and a half seasons. His position coach, Dave Brown, definitely admires the work ethic that has helped Huffman become the player that he is.
"Antonio has worked very hard over the spring and summer to prepare and help us win football games. And things have happened. These games we've played, you've seen him step up his game. You've noticed he's always around the football. Probably last week was one of his best games. I think he's trying to get better each week. Antonio had his hands on five balls last week, which is a pretty good job. What we want to do is turn some of those pass breakups into interceptions. I think that will happen."
"He doesn't take plays off. He realizes that that last play that you made was very nice and people may have been impressed, but that's not really our goal. Our goal is to be the very best that we can possibly be."
"I think he can be very, very, very good."
And three "verys" is very high praise, indeed, coming from a football coach.
Without question, one of the most striking (no double entendre intended) features of Huffman's game is his wonderful tackling ability, and the physical nature of his play. One expects to see these qualities in linebackers and safeties, but it is unusual in cornerbacks. To hear Huffman tell it, however, his penchant for planting opposing ball carriers on their posterior is all a consequence of coaching and hard work.
"You know, the coaches, Coach (Lyle) Setencich and the staff, always talk about tackles, and the secondary is the last line of defense, so if anything gets past us that's six points, that's a touchdown. So, you know, we work hard at it -- on technique to make good tackles, to make form tackles, and slow ‘em down at least, to get ourselves into great position to make tackles. Work hard at it in tackling drills, you know, and it shows out on the field."
Brown echoes Huffman's sentiments, although he also notes that Tech's starting cornerbacks (Khalid Naziruddin is Huffman's partner on the opposite side of the field) have a special quality about them.
"What we must understand is that being in this defensive secondary, particularly as a cornerback, is that you're the last line of defense, and that when we miss a tackle, when we make a mistake, everybody sees it, and it costs the team. It can cost the team a touchdown, which is points. We emphasize, and stress, and continue to work on it everyday: tackling, the fundamentals of tackling, where to look, what we do with our feet and our hands. And we really just work on it. And these guys are physical young men, and they enjoy tackling, which is something I really like and admire and respect. They are complete football players."
As well-rounded and talented as Huffman is, it is clear that he much prefers to talk about the defense as a whole, rather than his own performance and abilities. And why not? The defensive unit's remarkable transition from 2003 sieve to 2004 sledgehammer provides Tech with at least an opportunity to win the remaining games on its schedule and receive a major bowl bid. With such a dramatically improved defense to go along with the traditionally potent Raider offense, the Raiders could have a special year. According to Huffman, it was, in part, the trauma of last season's defensive woes that contributed to the defenses revivification this year.
"One of the reasons, you know, I think we're a whole lot better, you know, is experience. We were a young group last year. We worked hard in the off season is one reason why [the defense improved]. We refuse to be the defense we were last year."
Huffman also believes that good team cohesion borne of reciprocal confidence between individual players on the defense has contributed to the unit's success.
"You know, it's phenomenal. It's just like a family. You feel like, you know, you trust another player, like the safeties, linebackers, and D-linemen. When you can trust one another, you can focus on your job and not focus on their job, and that's pretty much what it boils down to: trusting each player on the field to do their job and you know you're going to do your job, and everything just falls into place."
If Huffman and the defense have their way, shutouts and a Big Twelve championship will also fall into place.
"One of the goals of the defense is to be one of the best defenses in the Big Twelve. To perform every game. We haven't got any shutouts yet, but one of our goals is to get some shutouts this year, and to get the ball to our offense as much as we can, because when our offense gets the ball more than our opponent, you know, we win. Another goal is to be Big Twelve champs, just like the team goal."
To have any chance of reaching that last goal, Huffman and his teammates will need to bump off the #9 Texas Longhorns this Saturdays. For Huffman and his position coach, such an accomplishment will entail corralling Texas quarterback Vince Young and preventing an unwanted explosion from a Longhorn passing attack that has been largely dormant thus far. Huffman, for one, respects the talented Texas quarterback, but does not anticipate doing anything out of the ordinary in terms of preparation.
"Vince Young is a great quarterback -- very athletic."
"But we're just gonna do him like any other quarterback. We're gonna practice and look at film, and that's what you've got to do to perform and beat ‘em."
Brown, for his part, sounds as though he'd like to strap on a hat and lay a few licks, himself.
"Texas is a very fine football team. They have a 6-5 quarterback and a big running back, and they do a great job of running the football. Those receivers, as Texas receivers, are really tall. They've got a 6-4 kid, guys that are really fast, you know. They'll be a challenge. But we are looking forward to the challenge. And we will, Lord willing, be there on Saturday, October 23rd at 6 p.m. in Jones stadium and be ready to play that ballgame."
During the Texas game, don't begrudge Huffman if he occasionally casts one eye to the scoreboard to see how the Kentucky Wildcats are doing. His brother Antoine, who sports the same number 36 worn by Antonio, is a starting cornerback for the SEC school. And the two are very close despite the physical distance that separates them.
"Me and my brother talk every day. It's either through email or on the phone. Tradition-wise, we always talk on Thursday, and on Sunday. We have to talk before the game and after the game to see how each other played and how the team went, and what happened during the course of the game -- things like that. But, you know, my brother's a billion miles away or whatever, but we always talk so it's like he's here with me."
Despite the distance from his brother and the even greater gulf separating him from his hometown in Georgia, Huffman has adapted to his new surroundings with little difficulty.
"I went to JUCO in Kansas. And Garden City, Kansas is a small town, pretty much like here. But Lubbock is a little bit bigger than Garden City, obviously, but, you know, the people in Garden City was great, and, you know, I committed to Tech twice, coming out of high school and out of JUCO, and the reason I committed was because of the people. Getting recruited here, one of the things I looked at was, if I'm going to be that far away from home it has to be people I can live with."
"I love it here. I love the people, and everything is good."
As Tech fans get better acquainted with Antonio Huffman on and off the field, that love will be flowing in both directions.