Every college football season there seems to be a prospect that comes out of nowhere to have a big season and shoot near the top of draft boards.   This season, the prospect that came from outside of the NFL radar came from the program that wasn’t on the college football radar when the 2017 season started.   Cornerback Mike Hughes was a major catalyst for this past season’s Cinderella team, the undefeated UCF Knights.  Hughes’ success probably even surprised his coaches and teammates as he played a prominent role in the team’s August 31 opener, despite the fact he didn’t even join the team until August 17th as a late transfer.

Hughes didn’t completely come out of nowhere, though.  He was a four-star recruit and rated the number 11 overall player in the state of North Carolina out of high school.  Hughes stayed in his home state to play for the University of North Carolina, where he saw the field in 11 games as a true freshman.  After a misdemeanor assault charge filed against him (and fellow 2018 draft prospect, MJ Stewart) in 2015, Hughes left Chapel Hill and went the junior college route in order to avoid sitting out a year.  After a first team Junior College All-America year at Garden City Community College, Hughes jumped back to Division One football at UCF.

Hughes is about average size for an NFL corner, listed at 5’11”, 191 pounds.  He is an explosive athlete with excellent speed and quickness.  His speed allowed him to run with any receiver he faced this season.  However, it was his ability in the return game that may be the factor that pushes him into the first day of the draft.   Most famously, Hughes kept UCF’s undefeated season alive in the American Athletic Conference championship game with a kickoff return touchdown in the final minute and a half.

Hughes is one of the rare college corners that have shown the ability to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage.  Hughes is physical in press coverage and doesn’t allow many free releases.  He relishes contact and loves to stick his nose in the outside run game.

Hughes displays what may be the best hips in the draft class as he effortlessly flips them to stay with receivers who try to quickly change direction to create separation.

This is excellent footwork from Hughes.  He stays low in his backpedal, and because he stays so tight to the guy he’s covering, he foils the designed pick route coming from the inside receiver.

In these next two plays, Hughes shows off his repertoire in man coverage.  While he doesn’t jam the receivers of the line, he does show the ability to mirror their footwork, flip his hips to change direction, and then excellent ball skills to go get the ball in the air.

In both plays, Hughes plays the trail technique and stays in the receivers’ hip pockets before each pass is released.  Trailing the receivers allows Hughes to effectively take away the back shoulder throw.  But as the ball is in the air, he has the elite closing speed to pass the receiver and go make a play on the ball.

The negatives with Hughes tend to center around his lack of experience.  Hughes played a lot of man coverage, often on an island without safety help, so he doesn’t have a lot of time spent playing in the various zone defenses.  Teams could be concerned that Hughes is a one-year wonder, as 2017 was his only season starting at a major college program.  However, they shouldn’t be concerned about his level of competition.  Despite playing at an unheralded program, Hughes faced four games against three top draft eligible receivers.  Hughes more than held his own against SMU’s Courtland Sutton, Maryland’s DJ Moore, and twice against Memphis wide receiver, Anthony Miller.  He held Sutton to a season-low 9.2 yards per catch.  He returned his only pick-six after his closing speed forced a drop by Moore.  And he frustrated Miller with his physicality.

Many scouts feel that Hughes would be best served to “redshirt” as a rookie to learn NFL defensive schemes, while seeing the field as a team’s primary kick returner.  However, he’s competitive enough to come into camp as a third or fourth corner and work his way onto the field early as a rookie.  Hughes should slot somewhere at the end of the first round to the top of the second, giving him a great situation to either develop on a playoff caliber team or have a big impact as a starter for a lesser team.  Either way, some NFL team is getting one of the rare potential shutdown cornerbacks.

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