Veteran coach Terence Newman, who started his tutelage of Minnesota Vikings’ first-round pick Mike Hughes as a fellow cornerback, sat in a locker stall and quietly talked with the dejected rookie. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer went to Hughes, put a hand on his back and offered a few words of his own.
What Minnesota seemed to know following its 27-17 win against Arizona on Sunday was confirmed a day later.
Hughes, picked No. 30 overall by the Vikings in April, will miss the rest of the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee.
"I do, because he was learning and continued to learn, and he’s got a lot of great attributes,” coach Mike Zimmer said of feeling for his young cornerback. “I think toughness, and his skill set is really good. But he’s going to come back, and he’s going to be great. We’ve got great doctors here and great trainers. (Athletic trainer Eric Sugarman) has done an unbelievable job with every one of our guys that have had ACL. We’re going to miss him, but we’re going to move forward.”
Hughes was a surprise pick in the draft this year with Minnesota seemingly deep at cornerback with Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Newman and Mackensie Alexander. Holton Hill also made the team as an undrafted free agent, while Newman made the move to coaching as the team set its initial regular-season roster.
The Vikings selected Hughes because of his talent and he carved out a niche early.
He became a contributor early both in the defense and on special teams. Hughes had played the nickel back spot as Alexander dealt with an injury to start the season, and Hughes had started the previous week on the outside with Trae Waynes out with a concussion.
Hughes had 21 total tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and three pass deflections. He averaged 26.8 yards on four kickoff returns and returned two punts for a total of 13 yards.
“This has always been a deal where somebody gets hurt, and everybody else has to continue to step up and play,” Zimmer said. “We feel bad about Mike, because I think Mike is going to be a really good football player, but we got other guys here and we expect them to come in and do a good job.”
Alexander was the first nickel used in Sunday’s win with Waynes back, giving the team its planned trio of Rhodes, Waynes and Alexander. Hill could see his role grow and the team has increasingly used a big nickel defense with three safeties on the field.
Hughes will be placed on injured reserve and Zimmer said, “we’ll see” on whether the team adds another cornerback with the open roster spot.
“First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with Mike because he’s a young dude with a very, very bright future,” safety George Iloka said after Sunday’s game. “I just told him, ‘Any goal he wants to accomplish is still in front of him.’ I haven’t seen too many rookies with the skill level that he has and I’ve played with a lot of good DBs, first-round DBs too. The sky’s the limit for him.”
Iloka added: “Next guy has to step up, whoever that is. We all just got to lock in, have to rally together. Like I said when I came here, this secondary, this team, is loaded, deep. So, that has to come into play now if he’s out.”
It’s the second straight year Minnesota has lost its top draft pick to an ACL injury. Running back Dalvin Cook went down in Week 4 last season. Like Hughes, the injury occurred at home at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Selecting Hughes in the first round continued a trend for the Vikings, which has selected four defensive backs in the first round in the past seven drafts.
Zimmer and coaches had said during training camp that Hughes had progressed quicker than many cornerbacks they’ve worked with over the years.
“For a young guy, he was real professional about everything,” Zimmer said. “Studied hard, asked good questions. Never afraid to ask anything. Not afraid to compete. A lot of times it’s just learning the speed of the game and trying to understand the concepts and coverage and things like that.”
COOK WAS CLOSE
Cook, who’s return from his knee surgery has been stalled because of a hamstring injury, missed his third game in four weeks on Sunday. Cook had been a full participant in practice last Thursday before being limited on Friday.
Cook was questionable, but the team made the decision to sit him out again.
“It’s close,” Zimmer said of Cook. “I mean, we just have to feel comfortable with it.”
In Cook’s place, Latavius Murray had the best rushing performance of the season for Minnesota. He had 24 carries for a career-high 155 yards rushing.
O’NEILL DRAWS PRAISE
Rookie Brian O’Neill, who was drafted after Hughes in the second round, made his first NFL start on Sunday with left tackle Riley Reiff inactive because of a foot injury. O’Neill started at right tackle with Rashod Hill sliding from the right to left to replace Rieff.
“He’s progressed an awful lot,” Zimmer said of O’Neill. “I thought he played pretty well yesterday. He battled, very smart, picked up a lot of the things that they were trying to do. He’s getting better all the time.”
Brian can be found on Twitter at @MNBrianHall. See all of the Vikings’ coverage at footballmaven.io/vikings