by Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff
To some players, the dreaded “tweener” label means they fail to fit at any one position. Jerry Hughes is not one of those players. At Texas Christian, Hughes manned defensive end at an undersized 6-foot-2, 255 pounds. Still, he has few concerns about where he’ll play in the NFL, as long as he gets a chance to chase opposing quarterbacks.
The Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year spoke about switching positions and how the people around him have helped with his development on and off the field.
I know that you’re getting a lot of questions about making a transition from defensive end to outside linebacker, but you’ve already had to deal with a pretty big transition in your career. Why don’t you talk a little bit about going from a high school running back to a college pass-rushing defensive end?
Absolutely. You know, I always thought that the biggest transition right there was switching from a position that likes to, you know, touch the ball, score touchdowns, be a little flashy, to a position that’s all, really, in the trenches. You’ve got to have a lot of heart and soul to play that position, because every snap of the ball, you’re always going against somebody two, three times bigger than you. So, I felt like for the most part the one thing I needed to do to learn that position was to put some weight on. You know, I felt like being 200 pounds going against guys that were 320, I probably wouldn’t win most of those battles, so I felt like putting on some weight would really help me. And then, also, just looking at it from a mental aspect, playing running back in my high school days, I tried to do my best to kind of avoid contact, being the guy making the defensive players miss. So it was a real mental battle for me to – coming from a guy who’d avoid contact – to say, okay, now I’ve got to put my nose in there, bang around with the big boys, and really kind of just make that whole transition from there. Once I was able to get that mind set of a defensive player’s mentality where I’m going out there to hit whoever crosses my face, I felt like the game really changed for me, and I finally got a better understanding for it.
So, I read somewhere that you were calling offensive players prima donnas now. That’s a big switch.
(Laughs.) Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say “prima donnas.” You know, some of those offensive players will come up there and hit you in the mouth, so, you know, you’ve kind of got to watch that statement. But you know, I just say it’s a lot bigger transition than what people can think, playing offense and then coming to the defensive side of the ball.
You’ve already done some standing up from your position at TCU, didn’t you?
Yeah, I did a little bit, depending on the type of coverage that was being called and things like that. It would all depend on the scheme of the defense that we were running at the time.
And isn’t the Horned Frogs’ defense a little unorthodox in terms of most college defenses?
Yeah, you know, it’s out of a 4-2-5 scheme. You really don’t see that a lot in college football or in the NFL for long, but a 4-2-5 is really similar to a 4-3 defense, where you’ve got four down linemen and now, instead of three linebackers, you’ve got two linebackers and a safety who’s kind of like that hybrid mix between a linebacker and a safety.
And how is your rehab going?
Rehab is going well. I just had a minor injury in the bowl game that set me back a couple of weeks where I just couldn’t be as active as I wanted to be. But I was taking care of it, working with the medical staff, and they’ve got me at 100 percent right now.
It certainly was disappointing from a fan’s perspective not to see you at the Senior Bowl. Was it disappointing for you not to participate in that?
Absolutely, because that’s one of those places where I wanted to be at, these things like that, competing against some of the nation’s best. When the trainers and doctors said, “You’re not quite ready,” it really hit me, because being an athlete, you always want to go out there and compete, (but I couldn’t) just knowing that if I was to go out there I’d not be 100 percent. It really hurt me because I had never really suffered any college injuries. I was very fortunate.
Have you gotten a chance to talk to NFL scouts, or do you feel like you might have missed out on that a little bit, missing out on the Senior Bowl?
Oh, no, I haven’t really spoken to any NFL scouts or anything like that.
How are you preparing for the combine? Any specific events, or trying to keep track of all the testing?
Just trying to be sharp all the way around, working on every individual event, so that way, come next weekend, I’ll perform at the best of my ability. I’m doing defensive end drills as well as linebacker drills – that way I’m getting to show my versatile side.
Do you feel like you’ll be at 100 percent?
Absolutely, you know, I’m feeling good right now. The medical staff has done a great job down here… So, I’m feeling 100 percent right now. I’m ready to go.
And how about your weight? Are you keeping it about the same, or are thinking about going up or down?
I’m keeping it the same.
Playing at TCU, you guys have been so successful. What do you think it will take for them to hold onto a top ranking, because it seems like getting wins isn’t a problem, it’s more like getting the respect is?
You’ve got to – those guys have just got to keep winning ball games. You know, the only way you can earn anybody’s respect is to just go out there and win ball games, because wins speak a lot more for themselves than just people talking about it. So, I feel like if they put together another 11-win, 12-win season, it will be hard to not position them into some of the BCS bowl games, things like that.
Being a Texas guy, was TCU always a big choice for you? What other schools were you looking at?
Nah, not really. I really didn’t hear too much about TCU, just because in Texas you always hear about the dominating powerhouses as in the UTs and the A&Ms. But as far as other schools looking at me, I had Texas Tech, North Texas, Arizona State, Iowa State.
What set TCU apart?
Oh, out of those schools, the ones I just named, you know, TCU was winning at the time. They set a mark where winning was accepted, and that’s the kind of tradition they were putting forth at that program. Also, all the coaches that were there from previous schools (I named) are all gone now. I think the coaching staff from Arizona State since they recruited me has been replaced, as well as North Texas, Iowa State and even Texas Tech. It was a great choice by me, you know, just being able to pick a school who’s had a very stable coach in Gary Patterson.
So what was the first thought in your mind when you were approached to play defensive end?
I wasn’t too high on it. Being a running back was something that I really wanted to do. My dad had played running back in high school, and I really just modeled myself after him, so I was not really pleased about the switch. But, you know, just speaking with my dad, he said, “You’re an athlete, not just a person who’s really set on one position. So if you open your mind up and you’re able to make that change, everything will just work (out) for itself.”
Do you think your father’s had a big influence on you and your career?
Absolutely. You know, he’s always been there, cheering for me, always giving me advice, just telling me things I could do better. He’s like a second coach. That’s always great to have, but at the same time it can have its negatives, also. But he’s always been a great father, a great dad. You know, that’s all you can ask for.
In terms of coaching, how do you think they got you into the right mindset as a pass rusher? You had so much success there, what to you think has been the key to your success in that role?
Probably my position coach (Dick Bumpas). Showing me different hand movements, different techniques that I didn’t know about, and really opening me up to being a successful pass rusher. And just, you know, reiterating (that I should) use my speed to my advantage, which can set up a lot of guys off-target by me using my explosive speed. So I feel like he did a great job of kind of molding me into the person, or the player, that I am today.
Well, I just want to tell you good luck next week. I hope it all goes well, and maybe we can hear from you after the combine.
All right, sounds great, man.
Thanks a lot, Jerry. I appreciate your time.
Email Chris Warner at [email protected]