Hughes' maturation lifts TCU's defense
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Jerry Hughes told TCU defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas he was going to stay for his season rather than go to the NFL, Bumpas handed Hughes a list.
It had two goals for Hughes to complete as a senior: Follow through on his degree plan and be a better leader.
The word "leader" was underlined -- twice.
With several key players leaving last season and just four seniors returning to the defensive two-deep, Bumpas knew for the Horned Frogs' defense to be successful, it needed its star player to show he was about more than just stats and awards.
"It was kind of up to me to determine what I needed to do to become a better leader, and I saw it as me being more vocal on the field," Hughes said. "Just kind of getting guys rallied up, because we had that in the past, and this year we were kind of lacking that senior leadership because everybody was so young."
Hughes' decision to stay for his senior season was the first step toward showing his commitment to the team and his teammates. He received an evaluation from the NFL's underclassman advisory board that said he was a projected late first- or early second-round pick. Most guys would have jumped at the chance to play in the NFL, and at the money, but Hughes maintained all along he was going to come back because he wanted to graduate -- something he promised his family -- and he felt as if he didn't know enough about being a defensive end.
"On the field, I had a lot more to learn," he said. "I've only been playing defensive end for four years now; there's still a lot more to learn. Sitting down with my coaches, we went back through some film and [Bumpas] just talked about me taking the right steps, using my leverage better as well as getting stronger in the weight room."
It's hard to believe Hughes came to TCU in 2006 as a running back. He'd been an all-district and all-state running back in high school and rushed for nearly 1,500 yards his senior season. But when he got to TCU, Bumpas and coach Gary Patterson saw him on the defensive side of the ball and tried him at defensive end.
Hughes was one of just four true freshmen that season to see the field.
Since then, he's blossomed into one of the best defensive ends in the country. He's been a consensus All-American each of the past two years, and this year he won the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top collegiate defensive end.
But what Hughes is most proud of when he talks about his senior season is the type of leader he's become and the way the freshmen and sophomores -- there are eight on the defensive two-deep -- have responded to him.
"He's going to push us to the limit, and even when he's gone, he's still going to come back and push us," sophomore linebacker Tank Carder said. "He'll do it for five more years. That's just how he is. He's real team-oriented, loves this team, and he's definitely going to push us in this bowl game. He says [going to a BCS game] is icing on the cake, but I'll tell you right now, we're going to go out there and do our thing and he's going to be right there telling us to do it."
Hughes has posted a career-high 54 tackles and leads the team with 15 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, which ranks seventh in the country.
However, his stats are down this year, and subsequently his draft stock also has slipped in some preliminary mock drafts. But Hughes' presence has made everyone around him better. He draws double-teams, which open up sack opportunities for other linemen. He also drives traffic toward linebackers Daryl Washington and Carder, who are the top tacklers on the team, with 99 and 81 tackles respectively.
"Having a great player like that, he's a game-changer and having him on the D-line, I think everything starts with the D-line," Washington said. "If they can get pressure on the quarterback then they can make everyone else's job a lot easier. I take great pride in what he's done for this team and it only makes me better, makes me a better player."
Bumpas said it's gratifying seeing the type of player Hughes has become this season, especially off the field. He said Hughes has set an example for the younger players in terms of doing the right things and choosing the right priorities. Hughes' decision to stay is not only part of the reason TCU won the Mountain West Conference, is ranked No. 4 in the BCS standings and is playing in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, but also the reason TCU will be a in a good place leadership-wise next season.
"[Hughes' decision to return] made me happy, because I knew that I was going to have a real good left end," Bumpas said, laughing. "No, but it's exciting to see a young man who has different goals than just the NFL. Because obviously he had the opportunity last year and he didn't feel like he was through with college yet. The great thing about it is he's going to graduate on time, in four years, so I'm extremely proud of him."
Graham Watson covers non-BCS college football for ESPN.com.