Mike Hughes is one of the most physical cornerbacks available this year
Mike Hughes, originally a 2015 four-star recruit, started 12 of 13 career games for Central Florida. He came off the bench in the 2017 season opener against Florida International before starting the final 12 games of the year. He recorded 49 tackles, four interceptions and 11 pass breakups in his one season at UCF, while averaging 31.7 yards per kick return and 16.6 yards per punt return. He primarily lined up at left cornerback in the Knights 3-4 defense and was named first-team all-American Athletic Conference.
Prior to UCF, Hughes began his collegiate career at North Carolina. As a true freshman, he played in 12 games, mostly on special teams. An altercation at a fraternity during the season led to Hughes being charged with misdemeanor assault, although the charges were later dropped after he completed community service. He would leave the Tar Heels after his freshman season and join Garden City Community College in 2016. Hughes was named an all-American, leading the Broncbusters to an undefeated season and junior college national championship.
He’s played for three head coaches and three defensive coordinators during his college career. As a true junior, he is an early entrant in the 2018 NFL Draft. He possesses adequate size on a sturdy frame with very good athletic ability.
Age During Rookie Season: 21 (February 11, 1997)
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Weight: 191 pounds
Mike Hughes may be the best press corner in the 2018 NFL Draft. He possesses very good line of scrimmage skills from press coverage as he keeps his feet still while delivering a solid jam at the snap to disrupt the timing of the route. Even when he doesn’t jam from press coverage, Hughes displays elite athletic ability, utilizing fluid hips to change direction and stay on top of the receiver.
Although the ball doesn’t come his way, his athleticism can be seen in the play below from the Peach Bowl against Auburn. From his left cornerback position, Hughes lines up in press. He doesn’t jam the receiver at the line, instead backpedals until the receiver makes his move inside. Hughes flips his hips to stay on top of the route and then again when the receiver breaks back outside.
On that play Hughes does a good job of staying on top of the receiver. On inside slants, he mirrors the route from a semi-trail position as a result of very good man coverage skills. That ability is evident in the following play. Against Anthony Miller of Memphis, one of the top wide receivers in the 2018 NFL Draft, Hughes runs a nearly identical route on the shallow inside slant. He stays right on the receiver’s hip and remains close enough to make a play on the ball and break up the pass.
From zone coverage, Hughes displays good mental processing skills as he diagnoses the play quickly. He demonstrates solid instincts and vision to see the receivers coming across his zone as well as keeping his eyes in the backfield. He showcases good range as he possesses the play speed to make a play on the ball outside of his zone.
Once the ball is in the air, he tracks very well and takes solid angles to the football. He utilizes good closing speed to make up any ground lost and possesses very good ball skills to break up or intercept the pass. After initially being beat on this play against South Florida, Hughes not only makes up the ground, but passes the receiver downfield and extends to intercept the pass.
As a run defender, he does a good job of protecting the edge and forcing the ball carrier back inside. He takes solid angles to the ball and displays very good competitive toughness as he won’t give up on a play until it’s over. He possesses the speed to chase down the ball carrier from behind and is a solid open field tackler.
On special teams, Hughes is a dangerous returner who possesses elite vision to find the open running lane and the breakaway speed necessary to elude defenders in the open field. He stepped up when he was needed the most in the regular season finale against South Florida. After the Bulls scored a touchdown to tie the game with 1:41 left, Hughes returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for the game-winning touchdown to keep Central Florida’s perfect season alive.
From off coverage, Hughes displays marginal body position as he stands upright rather than angular. This body position, along with inconsistent footwork, results in a slow plant and drive, hampering his ability to close quickly on the ball. He can be over matched by physical receivers when the ball is in the air and struggles on 50-50 passes in those situations as a result of adequate play strength.
In the running game, Hughes struggles to disengage from blocks and is easily turned away from the play. He displays a poor tackling form, putting his head down rather than seeing what he is hitting. Two instances of this happening are shown below, one on a pass play and the other versus the run.
In the first play Hughes attempts to blow up a screen pass against Memphis. He diagnoses the play quickly and squares up the receiver, however he drops his head. The receiver makes a quick cut inside, eluding Hughes who whiffs on the tackle.
The second play occurred against Auburn. On a jet sweep, Hughes attacks the play behind the line of scrimmage, but again drops his head and tries to deliver a knockout blow rather than wrapping up. The ball carrier spins free and picks up the first down.
Overall, Mike Hughes is a starting cornerback at the next level who wins with athletic ability and line of scrimmage skills. He’s not someone who should frequently be asked to play off coverage. He’s best suited to play in a Cover 0 or Cover 1 scheme in which he can throw off the timing of routes at the line of scrimmage and be left on an island outside.
Hughes has the potential to be a lockdown cornerback in the NFL. He’ll need to add strength to matchup with some of the league’s bigger receivers, although there isn’t much room on his frame for extra weight. In addition to cornerback, he should make an immediate impact on special teams as a returner.
As long as he doesn’t measure less than the expected 5’10” ½ to 5’11”, Hughes will rise throughout the draft process. Teams employing more man and cover 1 coverages will grade Hughes higher than those that favor Cover 2. If he puts on a show at the Scouting Combine, his stock would rise even higher, but for now, he’s expected to land somewhere between the Arizona Cardinals at pick 15 of round one and the New England Patriots at number 31.