By Logan Lowery
STARKVILLE – Mississippi State’s plans at strong safety changed drastically on the sixth play last season.
Jay Hughes ruptured his Achilles tendon and was lost for the year, forcing a shakeup in the secondary the rest of 2013. Although Hughes is back and healthy, he is now locked in a battle with junior Kendrick Market to regain his starting spot.
“We’re working and nobody is satisfied,” Jay Hughes said. “Everybody is hungry and everybody has that look in their eyes.”
Market, a junior from South Panola, started the final 12 games and finished third on the team with 62 tackles. Jay Hughes’ injury kept him out most of the spring as well but his father – the Bulldogs’ safeties coach, Tony Hughes – considers them both starters at the position now.
“We’re not afraid or worried about who’s in the game at any certain time because there’s no step down or drop in performance,” Tony Hughes said.
MSU lost the nation’s active interceptions leader in Nickoe Whitley to graduation at free safety and are banking on senior Justin Cox making the move from cornerback to fill the vacancy.
Cox switched to safety during Liberty Bowl practices last season, moving back where he was considered the nation’s No. 2 safety and a four-star prospect at East Mississippi Community College.
“The transition has been very smooth for him,” Tony Hughes said.
Cox made 31 tackles and had an interception in 2013 as a corner. The former West Point standout picked off 11 passes during his two seasons at EMCC as a safety.
Tony Hughes hopes having his son and Cox entering their final year together will give each that extra enthusiasm to lead not only the safeties but the defense overall.
“The thing you see with seniors like Jay and Cox is desperation,” Tony Hughes said. “This is it for them. It’s their last year and they want to go out winners so they’re going to work hard and do everything they can.”
The Bulldogs have three sophomores working their way into the rotation in Kivon Coman, Deontay Evans and Quadry Antoine. Brandon Wells also returns after a redshirt freshman season last fall.
State signed a pair of in-state safeties in February bringing in Rosa Fort’s Brandon Bryant and Clarksdale’s J.T. Gray. Tony Hughes is expecting both to have a bright future ahead of them.
“They have the work ethic, attitude, athletic ability and everything it takes,” Tony Hughes said. “They’re learning every single day from the older guys because they have experience. They’re going through the learning process right now.”