Hughes arrived at North Carolina as one of the gems of the 2011 recruiting class. The Virginia Beach, Va. native chose the Tar Heels over conference rivals Clemson and Virginia Tech and considered national offers from the likes of LSU, Michigan and Southern California.
Freshmen of Hughes’ pedigree are typically expected to contribute right away. However, the presence of first team All-ACC linebacker Zach Brown allowed Hughes to learn from one the best in the country while avoiding the pressures normally attached to a player of his talent. With Brown now playing for the Tennessee Titans, it's time for Hughes to start to become the player everybody expects him to be.
“This year, I expect for myself to be a part of the team and really step forward as a starting role and do my part as part of the defense,” Hughes told InsideCarolina.com following practice on Tuesday. “I’m coming in fresh off of last season, got good experience [playing] after Zach Brown and everything, so me being next to Kevin [Reddick] I just want to make sure I [do] my part.”
Talk to Hughes and you quickly realize he is more mature than most true sophomores. He understands his reputation alone will not breed success on the field, yet he does not feel the need to overcompensate following in the footsteps of an NFL draft pick. Simply playing within the team concept will lead to positive results on the field.
“Just making big plays,” Hughes said. “When my opportunity comes, just make sure I jump on it. Not missing that many tackles in the open field or whatever. Just making sure I do my part and my role on defense right now until I step into that full leadership position that I want to be in.”
Hughes must do his part in a new defense this fall. When he signed his letter of intent to North Carolina, he expected to play in a traditional 4-3 defensive scheme. However, new co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Vic Koenning implemented a 4-2-5 scheme this spring.
“It’s real different from what we were – from the classic 4-3,” Hughes mentioned. “Right now I think all our linebackers are getting pretty acclimated to it, so we’re doing a pretty good job right now, even the young boys are doing a good job.”
Fans read and hear about Hughes, as well as senior All-ACC middle linebacker Reddick. However, depth at linebacker is key for the 4-2-5 defense to prove effective. Hughes specifically mentioned Tommy Heffernan and P.J. Clyburn as standouts so far in fall camp. Heffernan is a classic linebacker, while Clyburn is more specialized given his athleticism.
Regardless of who steps up behind him, now is Hughes's time to shine and demonstrate why he warranted so much praise coming out of high school. The speed, strength and ability are all there. It is now a matter of mastering the new defense and simply fitting in. Everything else will work out from there.
“He’s got to be one of those big guys that flies around and knocks the crap out of everybody and that’s what he can do,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “He’s got great speed and he’s a ball hawk. Now, it’s making sure what you learn what you do and you play within the defense. You have to do what you’re required. Do your job to make the whole thing work.”
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