INDIANAPOLIS — The biggest knock on Jerry Hughes coming out of Texas Christian had nothing to do with closing speed or work ethic.
It’s that he wasn’t Dwight Freeney.
For all the positives Hughes brings to a defensive unit, his career timing might best be described as less than stellar. The two-time All-American came to an Indy franchise spoiled beyond belief when it came to defensive end play — Freeney on one end, Robert Mathis the other.
There is no such thing as a third bookend. Therefore, Hughes’ first two NFL seasons meant learning from two of the league’s best in practices and games. He asked questions of his heralded peers and played when asked, recording a total of six tackles as a rookie in 2010 and another 15 last season.
The Hughes file
Name: Jerry Hughes
Job: Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker
Born: Sugar Land, Texas
Weight: 254 pounds
High school: Stephen F. Austin High School, 2006
College: Texas Christian University, 2010
Draft status: Drafted by the Colts in first round (31st overall) in 2010
Did you know? Was a highly regarded running back recruit after rushing for 1,412 yards and 21 touchdowns as a high school senior ... a two-time All-American defensive end in 2008 and 2009 at TCU ... first two NFL tackles came against Cincinnati in November 2010
This season Hughes has emerged as one of the franchise’s many positive story lines, having quietly produced 41 tackles and four sacks. The latter ranks Hughes third on the team behind the Pro Bowl-bound Mathis, who has eight, and Freeney’s five.
“The best way to describe it is that’s it’s been exciting. A lot of fun,” said Hughes, who backs up Mathis at strongside linebacker in the new 3-4 defensive scheme implemented by first-year head coach Chuck Pagano.
“I’m a firm believer the best way to get caught up in the speed of the game is to be out there. This season has been a great learning experience.”
Hughes’ finest game statistically of this season and of his career came in the 35-9 loss to the New York Jets in Week 5. He finished with eight tackles and a sack, the rare glimpse of light in an otherwise mostly dark afternoon in the Big Apple.
There were times during the offseason that Hughes figured he would be among those swept up in the tidal wave of change bearing down on the Colts organization. He is indebted to new general manager Ryan Grigson for believing in him.
“Those first two years were tough because I wasn’t (on the field) as much as I wanted to be,” Hughes said. “The new staff has given me the opportunity to play, and I’m very grateful.”
Hughes not only is playing more but is playing a completely different position. The pre-2012 version had been trained solely as a defensive end. Hand in the dirt, meet at the quarterback, and so on.
It’s a mindset that served Hughes well in college. After all, as a Horned Frog he accumulated 28.5 sacks, 40.5 tackles for loss, eight forced fumbles and three interceptions.
The change gives him more responsibility, which is fine with him.
“Now we have coverage responsibilities, and we’re communicating with the secondary and the other linebackers. I love it. It’s showed me a new side of the game,” he said.
Hughes’ adaptability within the new scheme should mean even more time on the field in future seasons. After all, Freeney and Mathis both celebrate February birthdays, Nos. 33 and 32, respectively.
Birthday gifts or not, Hughes, who took home the Ted Hendricks Award and (Ronnie) Lott Trophy following his senior season at TCU, knows he owes them both.
“The main thing they’ve done is teach me how to be a pro. Those first couple of years were a good learning experience for me. What it means to be a pro. How to stay healthy,” Hughes said. “I have two guys here that know all the tricks of the trade.”