EAGAN – Mike Hughes has heard the questions for as long as he has played football.
How can he defend players who are four, five, six inches taller than him, and how can he do it so effectively?
“Just having that chip on my shoulder,” the latest first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings said.
“I don’t want to get the ball caught on me. I hate having the ball caught on me, even in practice. I just like competing.”
At 5-foot-10, Hughes will continue to give up inches to the receivers he’ll cover. But what he lacks in height, he makes up for in athletic ability, football intelligence and sheer will. That’s what led the Vikings to select him with the No. 30 overall pick in last spring’s draft.
“I just stress technique, try to be fundamentally sound, use my leverage to help, be physical and not play to my size,” Hughes said. “People say I’m short, but I don’t feel like I play (5-foot-10). I feel like I play like I’m (6-foot).
“Going up against a receiver who is bigger than me, that builds that chip on my shoulder to go out and compete.”
Hughes will have that opportunity this season, perhaps as soon as Minnesota’s season opener on Sept. 9 against San Francisco. Despite joining a secondary loaded with first- and second-round draft picks, Hughes’ play has been impressive throughout training camp. It quickly caught the eye of another Vikings cornerback who was drafted in the first round.
“He looks awesome coming out of his breaks, getting low, transitioning his weight and keeping his eyes on his man,” said Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings’ 2013 first-round draft pick and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback.
“I mean, he looks awesome. He doesn’t look like a rookie.”
WINDING ROAD TO THE NFL
Hughes’ route to Minnesota was filled with highs and lows, plenty of praise sprinkled with some criticism, and a pair of off-the-field incidents that ultimately led him to play for three different college programs in three seasons.
“I just told (the Vikings) what I’ve learned from those incidents, how I’ve overcome all the things that happened,” he said. “I’m just blessed to be part of this organization and I’m ready to go to work.”
Hughes committed to play Division I college ball for his home-state University of North Carolina in 2015, after a standout career as a quarterback and cornerback at New Bern (N.C.) High School.
He played in 10 games for the Tar Heels as a true freshman in 2015, but was suspended for one regular season game – along with teammate and fellow cornerback M.J. Stewart – following an early-morning incident at a fraternity house on the UNC campus. Hughes was charged with misdemeanor assault, charges that were dropped after he completed community service.
Hughes ultimately left UNC after a sexual assault allegation that didn’t lead to him being charged. A district attorney declined to file charges in the case, citing insufficient evidence. But those two incidents led Hughes to leave UNC to play one season at Garden City (Kan.) Community College. His coach there, Jeff Sims, refers to his program as “Opportunity USA,” a place for players to earn a second chance to play Division I football.
Hughes did just that, after helping Garden City C.C. to a national junior college championship in 2016, he landed at the University of Central Florida last year. He excelled for the Golden Knights, starting all but one game, recording four interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He also returned two kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns as UCF went 13-0, but was left out of the Bowl Championship Series and a chance to play for a national championship.
“It was fun. It was a lot of fun,” Hughes said of the undefeated season. “Everybody wants to win and that’s what I like to do. I love winning. Whatever I can do to help my team win that’s what I’ll do and that is what I did this past year with UCF.
“We had a great season and I loved every bit of it.”
‘DID THE HOMEWORK’
Hughes’ outstanding season at UCF was enough to draw serious interest from the Vikings – and many other teams throughout the NFL – but GM Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer still had questions that needed answers.
The team brought him to Minnesota for a pre-draft interview in March, then followed up with conversations with his family members, previous coaches, and some former teammates.
“I can tell you that we did a lot of homework, not only on him, but any player that we felt that had any type of character,” Spielman said after drafting Hughes in April. “We spent a lot of time with a lot of people that had him in their football programs. We spent a lot of time with people outside of the football programs. After our extensive research, no question we felt very confident with him coming in and being a Minnesota Viking.”
After using their first pick in the 2016 (Lauqon Treadwell) and 2017 (Dalvin Cook) drafts on offense, the Vikings went back to the defensive side of the ball this year. They didn’t entertain any trade offers for the No. 30 overall pick, once they knew Hughes was available. And head coach Mike Zimmer couldn’t have been happier to get a ball-hawking cornerback to add to an already-deep secondary.
“A famous old coach called me this morning,” Zimmer said the day after the Vikings selected Hughes. “He said that one of the reasons he likes me is because he understands that you can never have too many cornerbacks.
“There’s a commercial on TV right now where the lady asks this guy how many guns he needs, and he says just one more. That’s how we feel about corners – just one more. So as many times as we can find guys that can cover around here, the more we want.”
While Rhodes is locked in at one starting cornerback spot, Hughes is challenging another former first-rounder, Trae Waynes, and former second-round pick Mackensie Alexander, for playing time. Hughes could also be in line to return kicks and/or punts, though as his playing time at corner continues to increase, his time as a returner may come to an end.
“Those are some great guys,” Hughes said of the Vikings’ cornerback group.
“Obviously, a No. 1 defense. I’m just looking to build as a player and as a man off the field. Wherever I can fit in, in the defense I’ll do whatever the coaches need me to do. I’m just blessed to be in this position now.”