Mike Hughes: In Minnesota to do more than just cover slot receivers

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 4: Mike Hughes #19 of the UCF Knights tips the ball away from Trey Quinn #18 of the SMU Mustangs during the second half at Gerald J. Ford Stadium on November 4, 2017 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 4: Mike Hughes #19 of the UCF Knights tips the ball away from Trey Quinn #18 of the SMU Mustangs during the second half at Gerald J. Ford Stadium on November 4, 2017 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Vikings decided to improve their cornerback depth even more when they selected UCF’s Mike Hughes in last April’s NFL Draft.

It is not the intention of this article to disparage Minnesota Vikings cornerback Mackenzie Alexander, nor to dismiss his colleague Terrance Newman in what is likely his last year in the NFL. Both guys work hard and have certainly made plays in their time in Minnesota. Both are pros.

But let’s be honest. At numerous times in the 2017 season, on both crucial third-down plays and in the red zone, there were two guys with numbers on their backs in the Vikings secondary and those were numbers 20 and 23.

For the 2017 season, Pro Football Focus gave Newman an overall grade of 75.1, (average) and Alexander a 43.8 (poor).

In the first round of the 2018 NFL draft, with several other positions appearing to require upgrades, Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman selected cornerback Mike Hughes from the University of Central Florida.

Was he the best player available at that time or a need pick?

The case can be made for both.

Tough on the corner

The cornerback position in the NFL is perhaps the most demanding responsibility outside of quarterback. Beginning with the physical requirements, which must be near Olympic level, corners are usually asked to match these physical skills with scheme changes (man to zone, outside to inside, nickel, etc.).

Corners are usually matched up against the quickest and fastest athletes on the field as well. They have to try and stop opposing players who study their strengths and weaknesses on film and configure ways to beat them at the point of attack and in the mental aspect of the game.

In short, teams need talent and depth at the position. That was one big “need” for the Vikings to find a corner as talented as Hughes.

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Playing for the undefeated UCF Knights in 2017 (who beat the heavily favored Auburn Tigers in the Peach Bowl), Hughes was a baller all season long.

He displayed superlative coverage against top FCS wideouts and snagged four interceptions including a pick-six. The young corner was also strong in run coverage and showed a willingness to tackle last season.

Scott Frost, UCF’s head coach in 2017, shared his thoughts about Hughes heading Minnesota the Pioneer Press earlier this year.

"“I think it’s a perfect fit for him. He’s a guy that will come up and hit, and I think he’ll really embrace playing around a bunch of other guys with that kind of attitude.”"

Returns On Investment

In addition to his skills as solid corner, Hughes also was a top-flight NCAA return man. In fact, he was the first player in UCF history to return a punt, a kickoff, and an interception for a touchdown in one season.

That brings to mind something that Mike Zimmer, in his origins of coaching, learned well enough from old-school legend Bill Parcells.

As a player, the more you can do, the more valuable you are.

So with fan-favorite Marcus Sherels, who turns 31 in September, as the Vikings’ punt returner and 2017 kickoff returner Jerrick McKinnon now with the San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota’s front office saw Hughes as a player that could contribute on special teams in both coverage and the return game, as well as at cornerback.

In that sense, Hughes was the ideal “best player available” pick.

Getting To Know You

The rookie corner has reportedly been impressive in Vikings OTAs and training camp this year as he has been working hard to endear himself to the other players and coaches. But the young corner has also been a bit intimidated by Mike Zimmer’s extensive playbook.

Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings /

Minnesota Vikings

"“In college they kind of simplify it for you. When you get here, I wouldn’t say you’re on your own, but you have to expand your knowledge a little bit more. You have to know what’s going on before the snap, knowing how to read certain keys.”"

No doubt most rookie corners suffer from similar anxieties. But if I can remind anyone who’s not old enough to remember Super Bowl XXX (way back in 1996), where a much younger Mike Zimmer coached the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive backs against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

With help from the teachings of Zimmer,  Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown picked off two passes thrown by Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell, including one that he took the other way for a game-clinching touchdown.

Brown’s performance earned him the Super Bowl MVP and a few weeks later, he signed a multi-million contract with the Oakland Raiders.

Next. Top 6 position battles at Vikings camp in 2018. dark

So learn the playbook kid. This Zimmer guy knows what he’s doing.