A one-year starter at UCF, Hughes didn t join the roster until weeks before the 2017 season (August 18), but quickly earned a starting role, lining up predominantly outside at left cornerback. He also made an impact on special teams as the first player in school history to return a punt, kickoff and interception for a touchdown in the same season. Hughes finished 2017 with four touchdowns and six plays of 40+ yards.
A former all-state quarterback in high school, Hughes lasted only one season with North Carolina, but started with a clean slate at the JUCO level before transferring to Central Florida. Although he spent less than five months as part of the Knights program, Hughes made the most of it, putting together impressive tape as a cornerback and return man.
In press coverage, Hughes has the lower body quickness, cover instincts and physical nature to stay connected to receivers, not allowing much separation. However, in zone or off coverage, his inconsistent eye discipline leads to judgement lapses and spacing issues.
A four-star cornerback recruit out of high school, Hughes was a high school quarterback and led New Bern to two 4A State Championships, including a perfect 15-0 record as a senior, recording 273 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in the title game. He was recruited as a cornerback and rated as one of the top-10 recruits in the state of North Carolina. Hughes received offers from top programs like Ohio State, Clemson and Florida, but wished to stay closer to home and committed to North Carolina over North Carolina State.
Hughes played in 12 games as a true freshman back-up for the Tar Heels in 2015 and posted 11 tackles, but an off-field incident led to a two-game suspension and Hughes leaving the team after the season. He signed with Garden City Community College and earned All-America honors in 2016, collecting two interceptions at cornerback and 871 all-purpose yards as a running back and return man, scoring seven touchdowns (four on offense, three on punt returns). Hughes looked to transfer to a FBS-program and was expecting to sign with South Carolina, but by the time he received his associate s degree, he missed the deadline for enrollment. He then signed with UCF and joined the program in mid-August, just two weeks before the 2017 season opener. Hughes became a full-time starter in the second game of the season and led the Knights in passes defended (15) and interceptions (four) as a junior, scoring four touchdowns in three different ways. He earned First Team All-AAC and All-America (as a returner) honors.
Balanced feet to stay in-phase. Doesn t labor to flip his hips and stay attached to his man. Physical in press with the hands to initiate contact at the line and looks to keep receivers uncomfortable. Impressive closing burst to recover and crowd the catch point. Strong ball skills with the judgement to disrupt passing lanes. Throttles down as a run defender and lowers his pads to make secure open-field stops. Strong hands to finish tackle attempts. Offensive-minded athlete once he gets his hands on the ball, averaging 23.0 yards per interception return with one touchdown (4/92/1) as a junior. Impact return skills, averaging 16.6 yards per punt return (second-best in FBS) with one touchdown (14/233/1) and 31.8 yards per kick return (fourth-best in FBS) with two touchdowns (20/635/2). Has background baggage, but his coaches from high school to JUCO and at UCF all sign off on his character. Dane Brugler 1/14/2018
Appears unsure of himself in off-coverage, giving up underneath plays. Choppy footwork creates a hitch in his transition. Surrenders inside position too easily. Hands-on in coverage. Lacks ideal height and build. Needs to clean up his launching style as a tackler. Tends to give up on plays away from him instead of rallying to the ball through the whistle. Only one season of FBS-level starting experience. Character needs investigated after his departure from North Carolina charged with misdemeanor assault following a 3 a.m. fight at a fraternity house (Oct. 2015), which left a victim unconscious with a broken nose; he was suspended two games and pled guilty, agreeing to do 100 hours of community service and restitutions. Dane Brugler 1/14/2018
COMPARES TO: Kareem Jackson, Houston Texans Cornerbacks under 5-foot-11 better compensate in other areas like speed and toughness. That has worked for Jackson, who is about to enter his ninth season with the Texans, and is the path for Hughes to carve out a NFL role.
IN OUR VIEW: Despite lacking ideal size for a press-man cornerback, Hughes competes with the mentality and mirror skills to be a lock-down cover man. He also offers immediate special teams value as a return man and will be considered by teams in the first round.