John Hughes benefited from the culture shock he experienced after a new coaching staff infiltrated the University of Cincinnati’s football program about two years ago.
It took some time to sink in, but the change served as a wake-up call for Hughes. He realized he had to put forth more effort if he wanted to live up to his potential.
Hughes, a 6-foot-2½, 309-pound defensive tackle, turned the corner during his senior season. He was rewarded when the Browns drafted him in the third round (87th overall) Friday.
“When we came in two years ago, we just practiced at a little different tempo than most people,” Cincinnati defensive line coach Steve Stripling said in a recent phone interview. “It’s based on our up-tempo offense. Everything’s called at the line. So I think when we got there, our philosophy made it a little different, practice was a little harder with more intensity. So I think it was a learning curve, not only for John, but for everybody else. I think that’s just part of maturity.”
Hughes’ production behind the line of scrimmage increased significantly last season, when he started 12 games and compiled 51 tackles, including 12½ for loss, five sacks and a blocked field goal. In 2010, he started 12 games and had 47 tackles, including 4½ for loss, without a sack.
“He’s obviously a big, physical presence,” Stripling said. “I think he does a great job with his hands. I think he does a really good job of getting off blocks, and that makes him a really good run defender. I think what people maybe don’t know is he has the ability to rush the passer, to get off [blocks] and make plays, and I think that’s what kind of came to the forefront last season.”
The Browns plan to rotate Hughes with starting tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin. Defensive coordinator Dick Jauron believes Taylor and Rubin played way too many snaps last season, so the addition of Hughes should help spell them. Stripling said Hughes can play one-technique (across from the center) and three-technique (across from the guard), and that type of versatility appeals to Jauron.
Still, some were surprised Browns General Manager Tom Heckert spent a third-round pick on a defensive tackle even though other pressing needs — namely at wide receiver — had yet to be addressed in the draft. Heckert selected Miami receiver Travis Benjamin in the fourth round (No. 100). But first, he traded down 20 spots in the third round, gaining a fourth-round pick (No. 120) in a deal with the Denver Broncos, and then took Hughes.
Several analysts predicted Hughes would become a late-round pick, not someone whose name would be called during the second day of the draft. Even Hughes, a Gahanna native, conceded that he didn’t expect to be selected until later. During a conference call with local media, Hughes explained he and his family had planned a draft-viewing party for Saturday, when the fourth round started, instead of Friday night, when the second and third rounds were held.
Heckert, though, said he worried another team would use a third-round pick on Hughes, who bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times in February at the NFL Scouting Combine but didn’t participate in other drills because of an injured right knee. Hughes said he had a pre-draft visit with the Browns, and the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears showed interest in him, too.
The Saints had the 89th pick, two slots behind the Browns. The Bears bypassed Hughes earlier in the third round at No. 79.
“To be honest, we were holding our breath there a little bit,” Heckert said. “I was getting a little concerned that I shouldn’t have made the trade, but it came down that John was still there.”
Although the pick was not popular among most Browns fans, Stripling believes Hughes will prove he’s worthy in the long run.
“I think what really jumped out on game day was John just showed great quickness at times,” Stripling said. “Everybody labels him as a run stopper, and maybe I do, too, but he would show little spurts of quickness. Here’s a 300-pound guy that’s got football intelligence, that’s mature, knows how to work and he’s got the quickness to make some plays — and not just to defend the gap, but to get off blocks and make some plays. I think that’s when everybody said this kid’s got a future.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.