The War on I-4.
That's what they call the rivalry between the USF Bulls and the UCF Knights, a nod to the fact the two institutions are separated by a mere 100 miles of Florida interstate.
It's a rivalry Mike Hughes won't soon forget.
In late November, the two teams entered their latest clash with just one loss between them. UCF raced out to a 21-7 lead, only to watch USF storm back to take the advantage. After a season's worth of wild plays and nervous excitement, the combatants found themselves tied at 42 with 1:28 remaining.
With USF set to kick off, Hughes lined up with his heels near the edge of his own goal line. Then, he did this (skip to 6:00):
"I knew we needed a big play. My coach called the best return we had. The kicker had been kicking it through the end zone the whole game. Once I saw it was short, I saw a couple creases and I just put my head down and ran as fast as I could trying to make a play for my team," Hughes told STACK.
Hughes did a lot of that for UCF during their march to a 13-0 season. In addition to his electric abilities as a return man (he totaled three returns for touchdowns in 2017), he's also a lockdown cornerback. Hughes recorded 49 tackles, 4 interceptions and 11 passes defended for the Knights last season—a stunning accomplishment when you consider he's only been playing corner since his senior year of high school. One reason he's been able to pick up the notoriously difficult position so quickly? His background as a quarterback, he says.
Hughes grew up in New Bern, North Carolina, playing receiver and running back during youth football in addition to participating in soccer, basketball and track. By the time he arrived at New Bern High School, his coach, Bobby Curling, figured he should play his best athlete at a position where he'd touch the ball every play—quarterback. That turned out to be very wise, as Hughes led the team to back-to-back state titles under center. He totaled 2,035 passing yards and 1,244 rushing yards to go along with 42 total touchdowns his junior season. Curling, inspired by the belief Hughes could be successful anywhere on the field, opted to also make him a starting cornerback for his senior season. By the time signing day rolled around, he was ranked the No. 3 cornerback in the state. "Mike Hughes is, pound-for-pound, the best high school football player I have ever coached," Curling told the Orlando Sentinel in 2017.
Hughes has zero doubt his time under center gives him an edge over other corners. "Playing quarterback in high school has helped me a lot as a cornerback. I know how to anticipate where the quarterback wants to get the receiver the ball, (I know) how to anticipate different formations and where they want to attack our defense," Hughes said. Though he was still raw as a cornerback, the University of North Carolina had seen enough to know he could be a difference-maker. As a true freshman, Hughes appeared in all 12 games for the Tar Heels and looked to be destined for greatness in Carolina Blue. But an off-the-field altercation would strain the relationship between staff and player. Though charges were dropped, and he paid his dues with community service, Hughes would eventually leave the team prior to his sophomore year for "personal reasons."
His next chapter would take him 1,417 miles west of Chapel Hill into Garden City, Kansas. It was there that he enrolled in Garden City Community College and played for a coach who redefined the way he thought about toughness. Going from the bright lights of D1 football to the Kansas Jayhawks Community College Conference humbled Hughes in a big way. "It was a very humbling experience. I was out in western Kansas, (a town) that was smaller than my hometown," Hughes said.
He had to make a decision—embrace the process or lash out at his circumstances. His coach at GCCC, Jeffrey Sims, helped him pick the right path. "I give a lot of credit to my coach, Jeffrey Sims. He was a guy who was real hard on us. He's a guy who believes in second chances, and I thank him to this day for allowing me to get into this position," Hughes said. "There are a lot of guys who fold in that position. But like my coach would say, 'The tough ones get through it. The tough guys go to class, do the right things.' I did those things and I ended up in a good position, so I'm thankful for that…that year really changed my life."
With a renewed perspective and little distraction outside of school and football, Hughes blossomed into a JUCO All-American at GCCC. That attracted him a gang of suitors from all over the country. In retrospect, choosing the Knights over traditional powers like Auburn and TCU may have been the best decision Hughes ever made. Not only did he get to contribute to a historic undefeated season, but he got the chance to play for Travis Fisher. Fisher, a former cornerback at UCF who was selected with the 64th overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, served as the team's defensive backs coach. He taught Hughes ways to to gain a subtle edge before the ball was even snapped.
"In the NFL, a lot of teams get beat off alignment. So what (Coach Fisher) did, he taught us how to get in the right spot pre-snap. So when the play happens, we're already in the right spot—we're not getting picked by a receiver, for example. Just being in the right position on certain routes, small things like that, really helped slow the game down for me," Hughes said. "He was one of my favorite coaches, as well as (former UCF head coach Scott Frost). I learned how to actually line up in relation to where the offense was trying to attack us."
Hughes describes himself as more of a "lead by example" leader than a "rah-rah" guy, a personality which meshed perfectly with the other star of the UCF defense—Shaquem Griffin. Griffin was born with a birth defect that forced his left hand to be amputated during early childhood, but that didn't stop him from becoming a first-team All-Conference linebacker.
"Shaquem Griffin was a guy who came into work every day. Even if it was just to watch film, his energy (was) always positive. In practice, his energy is always positive. He always gives 110%, and that allows other guys to follow his lead. As a team, that made us closer," Hughes said.
In addition to his refined technique, Hughes brought increased strength and muscle mass to the field in 2017. He weighed 175 pounds as a freshman at UNC, and he's since gained 15 pounds. The combination of impressive brute strength, agile feet and intelligent technique made Hughes a force in coverage, as he allowed just a 44.5 passer rating when targeted last season.
After UCF capped off their undefeated season with a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, it didn't take long for Hughes to realize the NFL was his next logical step. He did have one year of eligibility remaining, but pro scouts were already salivating over his rare blend of athleticism, instincts and football IQ. The fact that much of the UCF staff, including Frost and Fisher, took jobs at Nebraska only solidified Hughes choice.
Once the decision became final, Hughes enlisted the help of Proactive Sports Performance (Westlake Village, California) to prepare him for the biggest job interview of his life—the 2018 NFL Combine. STACK caught up with Hughes on location at Proactive, where his athleticism was immediately evident. He's a fluid mover with the muscle to brutalize receivers in press coverage. Hughes helped his stock at the Combine. His 20 reps on the Bench Press (second-most of any cornerback) were an outstanding display of upper-body strength and his 6.70 3-Cone Drill (fourth-fastest among cornerbacks) indicates buttery hips and impressive short-area explosiveness.
Looking back on where he was physically when he first left high school, Hughes can't help but express amazement. "I've come a long ways, man. I give credit to the coaching staffs at every school I was at," Hughes said. "Speed and all that, that's come a long way. I've been trusting the process."
It's no surprise his diet has changed alongside his body, with high-quality proteins and veggies replacing the fast food he once subsisted on as a student at New Bern High.
While Hughes might not have a huge body of work—he was only a starter at the D1 level for one season—he has the mindset of a veteran player. His time as a quarterback taught him the importance of a short-term memory, and he's carried that with him to cornerback. "Playing quarterback in high school, you've always gotta have a short-term memory if you make a mistake. Same with corner. Guy's are gonna make a great catch, quarterbacks are gonna make a great throw. But (it's about) having a short-term memory, always thinking positive, never getting down on yourself and picking up your teammates when they need it," Hughes says.
As he awaits draft day, Hughes will continue to quietly grind, preparing to face the best receivers the world has to offer. He's barely had a moment to catch his breath after a whirlwind undefeated season which led right into combine prep, but he scoffs at the idea of slowing down. "I'm inches away from achieving my dream. I use that to push through my workouts," Hughes said. "Having my name called on draft day…(that's what) I think about when I think I can't finish a rep."