Mathieu, the sophomore LSU cornerback, finished fifth in the Heisman voting and was named the SEC defensive player of the year. Hughes, a redshirt freshman safety for Mississippi State, sees those accomplishments by a young player as motivation to keep improving.
“He just played with a lot of energy and a lot of passion,” Hughes said. “To see him doing good, an SEC DB and ain’t nothing but a sophomore (up) for the Heisman Trophy, that just tells me I’ve got a lot of work to do, man.”
Hughes is becoming a critical part of the MSU secondary, and will have a chance to move into an even bigger role next season with the departures of Wade Bonner and Charles Mitchell. This season, Hughes has played in all 12 games, recording 10 tackles and one pass break-up.
As the Bulldogs prepare for their Music City Bowl date with Wake Forest, the first few days of practice are being heavily devoted to getting young players like Hughes extra snaps. It can be a crucial time for these guys as they try to take on more prominent roles.
“It’s important for our future,” Hughes said. “Coach (Dan) Mullen, he’s always worried about the future.”
Hughes had the benefit of a redshirt year. Others, like defensive lineman P.J. Jones, got on the field right away. Jones, a Tupelo product, has played in all 12 games and has received quite the education in college football.
“A redshirt would definitely help, but I felt like I could come in and contribute,” Jones said. “I did a little bit, but if you’re 18 years old going against guys who’ve been in here five years, some more than that, it’s rough on you out there.”
This bowl prep gives Jones and others a chance to focus on fundamentals, such as technique, something defensive coordinator Chris Wilson harps on constantly with younger players.
Passing it on
This is also a chance for older players to take on teaching roles. That’s a job quarterback Tyler Russell, a third-year sophomore, has embraced. He’s trying to bring along freshman Dak Prescott, who could be the heir apparent to the starter’s job once Russell is gone.
“Chris (Relf) and Tyson (Lee) did it for me when I first got here, so I’m just doing the same thing with Dak,” Russell said. “And it’s a little bit easier for me to teach now, because I’ve been in the program, I know what to expect, and I know what he’s thinking because I’ve been in his shoes before.”
That’s the kind of cycle Mullen strives for. If all goes as planned, Prescott will one day be teaching, as will Hughes. In fact, Hughes is already showing signs of being that kind of player.
“Jay works hard, he’s a great leader, a great role model for our kids,” Mullen said. “He wants to be a leader, he wants to be a guy that everybody can count on on the team. I think he’s got a great future.”