If six top offensive linemen had not gone in the first round in last week’s NFL draft — Quenton Nelson (No. 6 overall out of Notre Dame), Mike McGlinchey (No. 9, Notre Dame), Kolton Miller (No. 15, UCLA), former Chanhassen High star Frank Ragnow (No. 20, Arkansas), Billy Price (No. 21, Ohio State) and Isaiah Wynn (No. 23, Georgia) — the Vikings might not have been able to pick University of Central Florida defensive back Mike Hughes at No. 30.
Offensive line was a position of need for the Vikings, and all of those linemen were rated ahead of Brian O’Neill, the Pitt tackle the Vikings took in the second round. O’Neill might turn out to be as good as any of those picks, but the consensus of mock drafts didn’t have him rated as high as those players.
But how did the Vikings zero in on Hughes?
General Manager Rick Spielman has a good relationship with new Nebraska coach and former UCF coach Scott Frost. That’s because Spielman’s son, JD Spielman, is a wide receiver for the Cornhuskers, even though he hasn’t yet played for Frost.
The GM definitely had at least two conversations with Frost, who had a lot to do with persuading Spielman to make the final decision to take Hughes.
Frost high on Hughes
Hughes played only one year at UCF but was a crucial part of a 13-0 season that culminated in a 34-27 victory over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Frost was named Coach of the Year by several organizations including the Associated Press, and Hughes was selected second-team All-America by the Football Writers Association of America as a kick returner.
Hughes’ accolades were truly impressive to Frost because UCF added Hughes late in the offseason last year.
“We didn’t get Mike until about a week and a half after camp had started,” Frost said after the draft. “So we were really close to our first game. I was really impressed with his ability, not just to come in and learn it, which was exceptional for him to be able to learn it that fast to get on the field, but also his ability to come in and integrate himself with the team.”
Hughes finished the season with four interceptions, 49 tackles and three special-teams touchdowns.
Frost recalled his reaction to Hughes being picked by the Vikings.
“I was really excited for him,” he said. “I think it’s a perfect fit for him. I think he’s the type of player that is going to thrive up there. Couldn’t be happier for him as a person having been through kind of a unique path where he was getting, couldn’t be more excited for him to go in the first round and land in a good place on a good team to play some place to make a difference.”
Hughes’ road to pros
Hughes’ football career actually started on offense.
“I played quarterback all throughout high school, and my first year in college is when I started playing corner,” Hughes said. “North Carolina recruited me as an athlete and the defensive coaches decided that I would be more of a threat on defense, so they decided to put me at defensive back.”
Was Hughes OK with going from a high-profile position such as quarterback to playing defense?
“Yeah, I was happy with it. I think I adjusted pretty well and I think it has worked out well for me,” he said. “It was pretty tough, but with the help of my coaches helping me to learn different techniques and learning how to adjust to playing corner, that helped me out a lot.”
Hughes was highly recruited coming out of high school and first went to North Carolina. He left the school after his freshman season when he was charged for misdemeanor assault in an incident at a 2015 frat party and ended up at Garden City (Kan.) Community College before transferring to Central Florida under Frost.
“I got in some trouble in North Carolina and I had to go to junior college and that’s how I ended up at UCF,” Hughes recalled. “My JC coach [Jeff Sims] knew a coach over at UCF and they had a long history. They got involved with my recruitment and I bought into what they were selling. That’s how I ended up at UCF.”
Hughes gave Frost a lot of credit for where he is today.
“He took me in. He took me under his wing. That was a special moment for me,” Hughes said. “It led me to this position. Frost is a great guy.”
While some people viewed Hughes playing at three schools as a big question mark, the Vikings didn’t feel that way. Many said the same thing about Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, who was the steal of the 2017 draft by the Vikings before his knee injury last October.
Elflein on Holmes
If there is one person who has a great appreciation of the talent of defensive end Jalyn Holmes, the Vikings’ fourth-round draft pick, it is Vikings second-year center Pat Elflein. He practiced across the line from Holmes at Ohio State.
“Jaylen Holmes is a great teammate of mine,” Elflein said. “I played with him for about three years and he has a great upside to him. He has all the different qualities you want out of a defensive lineman and he’s going to be a great addition to our team.”
Holmes was a team captain at Ohio State. Elflein said he reminds him of Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter and said Holmes should be a good fit in the Vikings locker room.
“I would say [Holmes] has all those qualities that Danielle has,” Elflein said. “I think that’s the type of lineman that we like around here — big, strong, athletic — and has all the other off-the-field traits as well. Just a great person and a great teammate and great for the community.”
Elflein spoke to me at the Minnesota Football Honors event, where he was named the Vikings rookie of the year. Elflein, who had surgery Jan. 29 on his left ankle after the NFC Championship Game, said he won’t be ready for full contact at organize team activities but should be ready for the season.
Bad endings abound
While there was a lot of attention given to the fact that, for the first time, the Vikings, Twins, Wild and Timberwolves made the postseason in the same year, all four franchises finished their campaigns with road losses.
The Twins lost their one-game, wild-card playoff in New York. The Vikings lost the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia. The Wild’s first-round playoff series ended in Game 5 in Winnipeg, only a few days before the Wolves’ season ended in a Game 5, first-round loss in Houston.
What’s perhaps even more disappointing is that the Vikings, who played in only two playoff games, won as many games as any of the other franchises.