EAGAN, Minn. – Fully recovered from an injury for the second time in two years, Mike Hughes is entering his third NFL season with a clean slate and opportunity on the horizon.
The Vikings cornerback is aiming to not only stay healthy for the season's duration but also secure one of the starting spots ripe for the picking.
Minnesota saw the departure of Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes and Mackensie Alexander this offseason, making Hughes – with five career starts – the position group's most experienced member.
Hughes spoke to media members via video conference on Monday and said it feels "a little different" to be 23 years old and considered the old man in the room, but he's not intimidated by the extra responsibility.
"At the end of the day, it's just football," Hughes said. "I'm learning every day. Even our vets are still learning every day, just taking bits and pieces from every little game, from the coaches' brains. I think it'll all help us out in the long run. We'll be all right."
Hughes has made a positive impression since being drafted 30th overall in 2018 but has battled injuries throughout his first two seasons.
He impressed early on as a rookie, snagging his first career interception against the 49ers in Week 1 of the 2018 season. His campaign was cut short, however, by a torn ACL suffered in Week 6.
Hughes returned to the field in 2019 and played 14 games, making three starts. He recorded 43 tackles (coaches' tally), one interception, one tackle for loss and a forced fumble. The Vikings on Jan. 3 placed Hughes on Injured Reserve with a neck injury, sidelining him for Minnesota's playoff games at New Orleans and San Francisco.
He explained Monday that the injury occurred on a tackle during the Week 17 game against Chicago; although scans did reveal a "little crack" in the bone, Hughes said he got "nothing but good news" from doctors, and the neck healed on its own without any surgery.
Hughes spoke with media members via video conference on Monday and said he's looking forward to showing his full potential.
"That's what I want to reach this year – tap into some new levels I feel like I couldn't get to because of injuries holding me back a little bit," he said. "I'm coming into this year 100-percent confident in my body and how I feel and the work I've put into this offseason."
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer appreciates Hughes' trust in his physical readiness and wants to see that same level of self-assurance on the football field.
"Mike is a very talented kid," Zimmer said. "He needs to continue to have more confidence in himself. He needs to have more belief that when he goes out there, he can cover anybody.
"I think that's the biggest thing with Mike," Zimmer continued. "If Mike will just say, 'Hey, I got this guy, it's me – let's go, you and me.' I think that part will help him mature faster and be a better player quicker."
Hughes acknowledged the message he's received from Zimmer and said he uses the constructive criticism as fuel to improve.
"Whenever I go on the field, I use that as a chip on my shoulder to kind of let loose and be who I am as a football player and person," Hughes said. "He's brought it up. I don't take it as a negative. 'Just put your head down and work hard, and that confidence will build, however long it takes.'
"I feel pretty confident in everything I'm doing and everything [the coaches are] doing with me, so hopefully we can keep building on that," he added.
It's no secret that Zimmer is a cornerbacks guy. Has he been even tougher on the position group being that so many youngsters are vying to standout in a summer program shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic?
"He's always himself," Hughes said of Zimmer. "So I would say it's about the same. He gets on everybody, but it's always with a purpose. He wants to bring out the best in us."
Young and hungry would be a good way to describe the 2020 Vikings cornerback room.
Hughes said they all feel as if they have "something to prove" and that there's still competition among the group. The competition is fierce with – essentially – three starting cornerback spots on the table.
Asked if he feels more comfortable playing in the slot or on the outside, Hughes said he anticipates spending time at both spots.
"I've been playing both since I stepped into this league, so whatever the coaches feel like I do best, I'll roll with that and do whatever I can to help my team," he said.
Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer said last week that it's still being figured out.
"I think Mike has done a good job in the past for us, and he's really good at it," Adam Zimmer said. "He also plays well outside. So we're going to give Jeff [Gladney] an opportunity. We'll give Mark Fields an opportunity. We'll give a few guys an opportunity to see what they can do and, again, find the best combination and get the best players on the field."
Hughes is working to set himself apart and earn a starting role ahead of Minnesota's season opener, which is set to kick off at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sept. 13. And this year, he hopes to play in all 16 … and hopefully then some.
After all, he's happiest when he's between the white lines.
"I love the game of football. I've been playing it ever since I can remember," Hughes said. "Obviously this year is pretty different, some new faces in the locker room. I'm definitely looking forward to competing with my guys and just having fun, at the end of the day.
"With a young group, I feel if we can put this thing together, we can do something special," Hughes later added. "I'm sure a lot of teams or critics or whoever don't think we have a lot to [put on tape], but I think we do. If we can keep these guys [going] and trust in one another, we can really get something rolling."