Had Bill Parcells found himself in the same position Mike Zimmer was in on Thursday night — as the head coach of a team with a defense good enough to propel the club to the NFC Championship Game — there’s a good chance he would have done exactly what the Vikings did with the 30th overall pick.
Zimmer said Friday “a famous old coach called me this morning” — and when Zimmer talks that way, it’s usually safe to assume he’s talking about Parcells – to give a thumbs-up to the fact the Vikings added Central Florida’s Mike Hughes to a cornerback group already headlined by two first-rounders.
“[He] said that one of the reasons he likes me is because he understands that you can never have too many cornerbacks,” Zimmer said. “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.’ That’s how we feel about corners — just one more. So as many times as we can find guys that can cover around here, the more we want.”
There’ll be no rush to work Hughes into a major role in 2018, not with Xavier Rhodes manning the right cornerback spot and Trae Waynes playing on the left side. Hughes could get an opportunity to compete with Mackensie Alexander for playing time at the nickel corner spot, though as Zimmer said Thursday night, the job’s complexities can make for a steep learning curve.
Hughes, who played quarterback in high school, has only been a cornerback for three years, and spent two of them in a Division I program. His first job, for now, likely will be to go through the cornerback indoctrination Zimmer gave to Rhodes, Waynes and Alexander in recent years.
“I think this staff will do a great job of polishing me as a corner,” Hughes said. “Also, the veterans that are currently here I am looking forward to learning from those guys. So I think being here for a long period of time will definitely help out my game.”
The 21-year-old enrolled at Central Florida just two weeks before school started last year, but was starting for the Knights by Week 2, regularly matching up with their opponent’s top receiver.
He had to learn quickly to stand out on a team that went 13-0 last season, and the fact he did it in college, Central Florida coach Scott Frost said, will help him acclimate to the NFL.
“I mentioned that to someone at the draft; we didn’t get Mike until a week-and-a-half after camp had started,” Frost said. “I was impressed with not only his ability to learn, but his ability to come in and integrate himself with a team. He’s a guy that will learn it quick and fit in really fast.”
In the meantime, Hughes’ immediate impact could be as a return man, after he took back two kickoffs and a punt for a touchdown last season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league will again explore alternatives to kickoffs at a safety summit next week, but even if the play is eliminated, “I’ll still have punt returns,” Hughes said.
He relished, and excelled in, press coverage techniques in college, and stood out as a tackler near the line of scrimmage last season, Frost said.
When he talked about his mentality as a corner Friday, Hughes also hit on one of Zimmer’s central tenets for his cornerbacks: Don’t let your guy catch the ball.
“I hate having the ball caught on me, even in practice,” Hughes said. “I just like competing. Just going up against a receiver that is either bigger than me or ranked pretty high, that builds that chip on my shoulder to go out there and compete.”
The Vikings gave Waynes only 195 defensive snaps as a rookie, after selecting him 11th overall, and they used Alexander for just 68 after taking him in the second round in 2016. While Hughes could get a chance to play as a rookie, the Vikings’ depth at the position, and Zimmer’s history with first-year corners, suggests Hughes will get some time to learn.
The reason he’s here, though, is because he possesses some traits that Zimmer believes can never be emphasized enough.
“Mike’s a tremendous athlete, great quickness in and out of the cut,” Zimmer said. “[He’s got a good] short shuttle time, which I look at very hard. He was outstanding, obviously, in his 40-yard time. He goes and gets the ball in the air, and as Rick said he’s an excellent returner. I’m sure our veteran corners will take him under their arms and help him to become a great professional football player here.”