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Tribal Warfare
10-24-2009, 09:55 PM
At T.C.U., Player’s Success Comes From Dropping Ball (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/24/sports/ncaafootball/24tcu.html?_r=1&8dpc)
By THAYER EVANS

SUGAR LAND, Tex. — The legend of Jerry Hughes was first formed by juking defenders, breaking tackles and outrunning opponents.

As a running back his senior season here at Stephen F. Austin High, a school of 2,400 about 30 miles southwest of Houston, he rushed for 1,412 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2005. He was also an all-district kick returner who played some defensive end.

“He was their offensive threat,” Mike Ferrell, who coached against Hughes in high school and compared him to Dallas Cowboys running back Marion Barber, said in a telephone interview. “He could break it and go the distance on you. He was hard to tackle.”

Despite Hughes’s offensive pedigree, universities recruited him to play different positions. Arizona State and Central Florida wanted him at running back, but Iowa State pursued him as a linebacker, while Texas Tech envisioned him as a linebacker and potentially a wide receiver.

Although Texas Christian (6-0, 2-0 Mountain West) recruited Hughes as a defensive end, which he and his parents did not think was a good idea, he chose the Horned Frogs because Coach Gary Patterson was open to giving him a chance to play running back.

That never happened, but Hughes is hardly complaining. Entering his 10th-ranked team’s game Saturday at No. 16 Brigham Young (6-1, 3-0) in a Mountain West matchup that has important Bowl Championship Series implications, Hughes has developed into perhaps college football’s best defensive end. The Horned Frogs’ best N.F.L. prospect since tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, he is fourth in the Football Bowl Subdivision with eight sacks this season and is projected to be a first-round pick in April’s N.F.L. draft.

“No way, in a million years, could I have ever pictured anything like this,” said Hughes, a 6-foot-3-inch, 257-pound senior.

Other coaches projected Hughes all over the field, but Patterson knew he would be a defensive end the first time that he saw him during a visit to his high school in the spring of 2005.

When Hughes lined up at defensive end and caught a running back from behind on a counter play in seven-on-seven drills, Patterson turned to his assistant head coach, Eddie Williamson, and asked, “Who’s that guy?”

“What he did,” Patterson said in a telephone interview, “was very hard to do.”

Hughes was one of Patterson’s prototypical players.

As a defensive-minded coach, Patterson always looks for Texas athletes with speed and a tireless work ethic.

He also has a reputation for turning Texas high school running backs into standout defensive players. Of his team’s 11 defensive linemen in 2005, eight were tailbacks in high school, he said. Patterson noted that most high school coaches put their best players at either running back or quarterback.

“They can give a hit, take a hit and do things,” he said.

But when Hughes arrived at T.C.U. in June 2006, he had visions of being a running back. That dream was dashed when he received a No. 98 jersey.

Afterward, he called his father, Jerry Hughes Sr., and told him, “Dad, I guess I’m playing defense.”

“At first he was kind of worried about it because he had always been the one getting hit and not hitting people,” the elder Hughes said in a telephone interview. “He had to get used to hitting people and attacking people.”

The transition was humbling for Hughes, a lifelong running back. At the time, he was just 6-1, 215 pounds.

“It was kind of a shock at first,” Hughes said. “After a while, though, I guess I just got accustomed to it.”

Hughes was one of only four true freshmen who played for T.C.U. in 2006. He played in every game in 2007 before his breakout season in 2008, when he registered F.B.S. bests in sacks (15) and forced fumbles (6).

“That guy’s the real deal,” Southern Methodist Coach June Jones said in a telephone interview. “He’s big time.”

Although it lost to T.C.U. at home last month, Clemson limited Hughes to two tackles. That was not by coincidence, Tigers Coach Dabo Swinney said.

He said his team’s offensive game plan focused on minimizing Hughes’s pass-rushing ability in one-on-one matchups against offensive linemen. To do that, the Tigers mixed up pass protections, moved the pocket, used crack-back blocks and had players like a tight end or running back hit Hughes while he was also being blocked by an offensive lineman.

Swinney compared Hughes to Dwight Freeney, the Indianapolis Colts defensive end, and James Harrison, the Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker.

“What makes him special is he’s relentless,” Swinney said in a telephone interview. “There’s a lot of talented players out there, but they’re not all relentless. This guy lines up with a purpose on every snap. You better know where he is.”

While Hughes is a defensive end now, he will probably be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme in the N.F.L., said Gil Brandt, an analyst for NFL.com, who projects him as a first-round pick. Hughes has been clocked at 4.73 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

“The guy’s got speed,” Brandt said in a telephone interview. “He’s got instincts. He’s got competitiveness. He’s everything you want.”

Even now, Hughes and his father joke that he might not have played if he had not switched positions because of his size. They also kid about questioning the logic of Patterson’s move, which they now call “genius.”

That does not mean Hughes has completely abandoned his dream of being a running back.

“He still thinks he can run the ball,” the elder Hughes said.

That would be a position change the opposing offenses would welcome.