EAGAN, Minn. — Mike Hughes arrived in Minnesota on Friday as the newest Viking.
He landed at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in the afternoon and hopped in a limo for the quick trek to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, where he’ll begin work becoming an air-traffic controller in the NFL.
Hughes was happy to make a return trip to the sparkling new facility after having been a guest earlier in the month when the Vikings hosted their Top 30 evaluations of prospects.
There was a familiarity with the facility, but this visit also included presentation of a purple 21 jersey.
That was when a “lifelong dream” became a reality.
“As I walked around the building and met everybody and had a chance to see my jersey, that really got me excited,” Hughes said during his introductory press conference.
Prior to the presser, Hughes told Vikings.com that he “always wanted to wear 21.”
“I look up to guys like Deion Sanders and Patrick Peterson, so like I was saying, hopefully I can make it look as good as those guys did,” Hughes said while standing on “the perch” that overlooks the Vikings indoor practice facility in which he will compete with the likes of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs during Organized Team Activity practices.
Hughes said he has enjoyed a “few encounters” with Head Coach Mike Zimmer and enjoyed talking football with one of Sanders’ former coaches.
“We’ve kind of built a little relationship,” Hughes said. “We talked a little bit about the defense and how he likes to play man, so I think we’ll get along pretty well.
“I think I have a strong man-to-man game,” Hughes said. “I can also play zone as well, but my return game, a lot of people sleep on that. I’m a really good returner.”
He credited playing quarterback in high school for boosting his return skills that led to three return touchdowns on special teams in 2017.
“I’ve been playing offense all of my life, played quarterback in high school, so whenever I can get the ball in my hands, I try to go for 6,” Hughes said.
Hughes’ jersey carries extra significance in the Vikings organization because it is the last one for a first-round pick that will have the name sewn on by Penny Bryce, who is retiring after 49 years as the team’s seamstress.
Bryce’s first work for the team occurred during the 1969 season when the Vikings won the NFL Championship and advanced to Super Bowl IV. She has worked closely with Vikings equipment manager Dennis Ryan, who was named NFL Equipment Manager of the Year for 2017, for more than four decades.
General Manager Rick Spielman spoke with Wobschall on Friday to recap the selection of Hughes, and he said the former Central Florida Golden Knight fit the bill in his position on the draft board and with his skills at cornerback.
“He was the highest player rated on our board. I know our scouts and coaches put nine months of work into this, and we’re not going to take a lesser player just to fill a need,” Spielman said. “As Coach Zimmer says, we can never have enough corners around here, and he fits all of the traits we look for at the position. Not only is he a corner, he’s also an explosive punt returner. The other thing that is of huge value to us is getting players who can do multiple things.”
Spielman said Hughes “checked all of the boxes” for physical traits that the Vikings look for at the position in Zimmer’s system.
“He’s a very quick athlete, he can get in and out of his transition, as Coach Zim’ likes to say, go from point A to point B, is very quick to mirror receivers out of their cuts, and for his size, he is a very tough, aggressive run-support player.”
That last nugget is always important and has been demonstrated by Vikings defensive backs, drawing from the demeanor of safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo, along with Minnesota’s biggest corner Xavier Rhodes (6-foot-1, 218 pounds).
Vikings 2015 first-round pick Trae Waynes (6-0, 190 pounds) wasn’t shy about getting involved in run support in 2017, his first as a starter opposite Rhodes.
When Hughes (5-10, 189) transferred to Central Florida prior to the 2017 season, the Orlando Sentinel quoted Hughes’ high school coach from North Carolina.
“I’ve coached high school for 27 years and had four players go on to the NFL,” New Bern Head Coach Bobby Curling told the paper. “And Mike Hughes is, pound-for-pound, the best high school football player I have ever coached.”
Rhodes and Waynes were starters on a defense that ranked No. 1 in yards allowed and points allowed in 2017. Mackensie Alexander, a second-round pick in 2016, split time with veteran Terence Newman as the nickel back last season. Newman is currently a free agent, but Zimmer on Thursday said there’s still a chance that the Vikings bring him back for a 16th NFL season.
Spielman said the Vikings are “very excited about the top three guys that we have, but in this league, 70 percent of the time you’re in nickel defense, so you have to have cover guys, and if you do get a guy banged up, you have to have enough depth.”
Hughes and other rookies will hit the field for the first time as pros next weekend for a rookie minicamp. He’s looking forward to that moment for sure.
“I’m definitely looking forward to learning from those guys,” Hughes said. “Getting in where I can fit in is the most important thing, and then working hard and competing.”