EAGAN, Minn. – Vikings cornerback Mike Hughes had his eyes set on Defensive Rookie of the Year; now, he's aiming for a different recognition.
Hughes got off to a strong start in his NFL debut but had his campaign cut short when he suffered a torn ACL against the Cardinals in Week 6. Since the injury, he's been rehabbing and working toward a return to the field.
"My goal next year is to win Comeback Player of the Year," Hughes said Friday in his first session with Twin Cities media members since being sidelined.
"I felt like I was just getting warmed up," said Hughes of his first six games in the pros. "I feel like it was going pretty good. I did a lot of learning. I still have a lot more learning [to do]; I'm only 21 years old. I'm excited to see how this facility, this franchise, can help my future, and I'm just ready to get back on the field."
Hughes, whom the Vikings selected 30th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, totaled 21 tackles (coaches' tally), two tackles for loss, one interception, three passes defensed and a forced fumble before his injury.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer was asked Friday about the outlook for Hughes and said, "It's a little early to talk about next year, but I like Mike Hughes."
Having impressed in his rookie season, he's hoping now to attack the rehab process with the same success.
"It's just getting back stronger, and I feel pretty good," said Hughes, who told media that it's his third week of walking after six weeks of being off his feet.
He called the six weeks post-surgery "probably the roughest six weeks" of his life.
"I wouldn't wish this type of injury on anybody, but it's a common injury, and guys are bouncing back pretty well," Hughes said.
"They've brought so many guys back," Hughes added of Vikings Vice President of Sports Medicine/Head Athletic Trainer Eric Sugarman and his staff. "They've brought so many guys back, and I feel very confident that they'll bring me back to the player that I was – or even better."
One player the Vikings training staff recently helped return is running back Dalvin Cook.
Cook also suffered a torn ACL four weeks into his rookie season in 2017. He made his return Week 1 against the 49ers but later missed additional time with a hamstring injury, which overlapped with Hughes' rehab.
"The week that I tore it, he was in the training room with me all week, and he's just been giving me some pointers and some things that he struggled with, and I've been taking those things in stride and just trying to be a step ahead of what he was able to do," Hughes said. "He's been pushing me to just fight through some things. He told me, 'Whenever it's uncomfortable, just try to push through it.' And that's what I've been doing, and I feel like I'm making pretty good strides."
Zimmer reminded reporters that "each injury is different."
"His injury was different than Dalvin's, so it's hard to say," Zimmer said.
Hughes doesn't have a timeline in mind and said he is "leaving that up to the training staff" but feels positive about his progress thus far. He informed media members that he has been using the underwater treadmill at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, which is the extent of movement and strength exercises he's completed at this point.
When the rest of his teammates disperse during the offseason, the North Carolina native plans to stay in Minnesota to continue his rehab at the team headquarters.
"The [Wilf Family ownership group] did a great job of creating this facility – the facility has everything I need," Hughes said. "So I'll be training here, and that way I don't have to bounce around everywhere. It will be easier."
Although he acknowledged it's been a trying experience, Hughes said it's been important to reflect on his journey to the NFL and use that as extra incentive on especially difficult days.
"Some days when I don't feel like coming to rehab and I'm a little sore, I just try to push through it," Hughes said. "I think about everything that got me here and what I've done, and I just use that to keep me motivated when I don't feel like doing anything. It's all about having confidence in the training staff and just being confident [in myself], really."
There's nothing Hughes would like more than to be on the field with his teammates when they face the Bears this Sunday with a playoff berth on the line. But even though he hasn't been able to play alongside them, the rookie has stayed as connected as possible and appreciates the opportunity to keep studying the game.
"Even when I was playing [but] on the sideline, you always have to just focus in on details, things you don't normally catch while you're on the field," Hughes said. "It's definitely been a great part [of this process].
"I still talk to all the guys; I still crash a few meetings," Hughes added with a smile. "I think everybody's just trying to … play together as a team and, you know, just keep trusting in what the coaches are telling them to do and trusting the scheme. I think they'll be able to pull it off this Sunday."