“I knew the punting game was going to be a huge aspect, because I knew our offense was kind of struggling last year, but our defense was spot on,” Hughes said. “I knew field position was going to come right down to it. I was so hyped. … I was mentally prepared and physically I was on. I think my punting kind of showed.”
Things have been on nothing but an upward arc for Hughes since the start of that game. He averaged 42.2 yards on 11 punts in the Hokies’ overtime win, having four punts downed inside the 20. It gave credence to the idea that a punter could earn game MVP honors. Cornerback Antone Exum took home the hardware, though.
“That would have been the game,” Hughes said, laughing. “But no, I’m definitely glad that Exum got that award. He deserved it.”
Since then, Hughes, a sophomore who solidified the Hokies’ woeful punting game, has been put on scholarship and followed up with an active offseason, punting with the coach of former Hokies kicker Brooks Abbott in Jacksonville, going to a camp in Wisconsin and returning to his home in Terre Haute, Ind., for more work.
It was there that New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford put on a camp. Hughes and Weatherford, who is 11 years Hughes’ senior, both went to Terre Haute North Vigo High.
“He’s just making millions in the NFL. He’s set the bar pretty high,” Hughes said. “But as far as what I’ve picked up from him is not even big things as far as the punting game, but just how to be a good teammate, how to be a good person and just earn your respect.
“Yeah, he helped out punting. Just watching him I learned stuff. Honestly, I look at video of him kicking on my phone every day before I go out to practice. He’s such a raw talent.”
Hughes would like to follow Weatherford’s lead and make the NFL. He wants to increase his hangtime this year, getting up to 5 seconds on a consistent basis. Last year, he hit that mark once at a practice and maxed out at 4.8 seconds in a game against Florida State. This year, he’s done it several times.
“Just putting my team in a position to win — at the end of the day, that’s definitely my biggest goal,” Hughes said.
Hughes lost a big asset in Alonzo Tweedy, a special teams standout who made seemingly every tackle on punt coverage. Tweedy’s now in camp with the New York Giants. (“That’s a depressing loss on my part,” Hughes said.)
But the Hokies might have an interesting replacement. Defensive end Dadi Nicolas has been working on the punt coverage team.
“We’ve got Dadi out there at headhunter,” Hughes said. “He’s a freak athlete, running that 4.4. It’s kind of interesting to see 90 out there on the left. But I don’t know. … We’re kind of figuring out who’s the best athlete to put out there.”