When the Vikings drafted cornerback Mike Hughes with the 30th overall pick in April, the selection was painted more as luxury than necessity.
The team had passed on an offensive lineman, the thinking went, to accumulate more depth at a position where it had already used two first-round picks and a second-rounder in the past five years. Even the analogy coach Mike Zimmer used on draft night suggested the Vikings were accentuating a strength.
“There’s a commercial on TV right now where the lady asks this guy how many guns he needs, and he says, ‘Just one more,’ ” Zimmer said April 26. “That’s how we feel about corners — just one more.”
A series of events in August and September, though — from Mackensie Alexander’s ankle injury to Terence Newman’s retirement to Marcus Sherels’ chest injury to Trae Waynes missing time because of a knee injury and concussion — has turned “just one more” into “just enough.” And in the process, Hughes has been thrust into a role on both defense and special teams that’s as critical as it is varied.
The rookie has started the Vikings’ past two games, playing both nickel and left cornerback while working as both a punt and kickoff returner this season. Hughes, who was one of two Vikings defenders to play all 59 of the team’s defensive snaps in Sunday’s 23-21 victory in Philadelphia, already has been on the field for 231 plays from scrimmage this season — 36 more than Waynes played during all of his rookie season and 163 more than Alexander.
And while some of Hughes’ playing time might have come because of necessity, he’s earned some trust by marrying his athletic ability with an eagerness to learn.
“I expected to play this much,” Hughes said. “I expected to come in here and bust my tail, and just get on the field any way I can. Obviously, they’ve found ways to get me out there, to contribute to the team. Everything they’ve had me doing, I’ve just been taking it in stride, and just growing as a player.”
He started at nickel corner Sept. 27 in Los Angeles, seeing a substantial amount of playing time at left cornerback once Waynes sustained a concussion. Waynes’ absence put Hughes in the starting lineup again last Sunday, when he gave up a 48-yard completion to Shelton Gibson and allowed a late touchdown pass to Zach Ertz, on a play where Zimmer said Hughes was “a little bit misaligned.”
Taking into account how much the Vikings are asking of a 21-year-old who played only one full season of major college football, the team seems pleased with Hughes’ progress.
“I thought he played well this week. He gave up the one deep ball, but he was in great position and the ball was a little bit underthrown,” Zimmer said. “He’s improved. He’s obviously got great quickness and talent. He’s a good kid that works real hard at getting better, asks a lot of questions, so I’ve been pleased with him.”
Waynes practiced Wednesday after being cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol, and said he expects to play Sunday against the Cardinals, which likely would free the Vikings up to put Hughes back in their rotation at nickel corner. In recent weeks, though, he’s had to prepare himself at two positions while the team waited to see if it would have enough cornerback depth to use Hughes in only one spot.
“It [requires] a lot [from a rookie,]” Zimmer said. “Obviously the corner is the easier learning [position] than the nickel, but when you have a normal week and you’re practicing three days and you get to study five days for a team, being able to really double-role things, it makes it a little more difficult to study all those different combinations.”
Hughes has managed by peppering Zimmer, defensive backs coach Jerry Gray and Newman — now the Vikings’ nickel/defensive backs coach — with questions, “kind of being annoying, in a good way,” as he put it. He’s also worked with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and assistant special teams coach Ryan Ficken to manage his workload as a return man when he’s playing a larger role as a defender, even though he admitted “whenever I get a chance to touch the ball, sometimes it’s hard for me to be like, ‘Coach, I need a blow.’ ”
Said Priefer: “I make eye contact with him, I look at his body language, and I say, ‘I got you’ — one of those deals. So we always make sure we have guys ready.”
The Vikings, quite quickly, have reached a point where they’re developing contingencies to ease the workload for a rookie corner who figured to be brought along slowly in Zimmer’s defense.
There’s likely no going back now, and Hughes doesn’t seem to be interested in pumping the brakes.
“It definitely takes time. I’m not perfect,” he said. “I went through some trial and error, some plays I leave out on the field. I make mistakes full speed. If I think I need to be at a spot, I’ll be there. You just have to pay attention to your keys. It’s definitely been a challenge, but I’ve been able to accept it and just take it in stride.”