Jerry Hughes couldn’t get on a plane fast enough.
He had just found out he was being traded from the Indianapolis Colts to the Buffalo Bills, and Hughes was ready for part two of his professional career.
Shortly after having the news delivered by Colts coach Chuck Pagano, Hughes was on the phone with Chris Jenkins, the Bills’ director of media relations.
“When can I get up there?” Hughes asked Jenkins. “I want to be there as soon as possible.”
Hughes arrived in Buffalo on April 29 – the Monday after NFL draft weekend – and since that day has “just been working hard and trying to improve.”
“It was a fresh start,” Hughes said of the trade, in which the Bills sent linebacker Kelvin Sheppard back to the Colts. “I literally couldn’t wait to get my hands on the playbook. I’ve always been a guy who comes in, works hard and tries to be a student of the game. When I’m on the field, I’m just trying to run around, wreak havoc and force some turnovers.”
It was the getting on the field part that was the problem with the Colts. After being chosen in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, Hughes made just one start in his first two seasons, with one sack.
Naturally, the “bust” label was slapped on him. But with All-Pro talents Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as the primary pass rushers in Indianapolis, Hughes’ opportunities were limited.
“I never really paid too much attention to the ‘bust’ talk,” Hughes said. “Going through those first three years … I grew as a player. I got a great opportunity to watch Dwight Freeney, to watch Robert Mathis, to see how they prepare week in and week out for the season. To see how they put together scouting tapes and how they understand what coordinator they’re going against. Just flying under their wing, really. But that fueled me, because I wanted to be out there.”
Hughes started to get his shot last season, making six starts and setting career highs with 41 tackles and four sacks. But the Colts still deemed him expendable – a decision Hughes said caught him off guard.
Bills General Manager Doug Whaley told the team’s official website that the Colts initially called about Sheppard during the draft, but weren’t interested in trading a pick.
“They offered up Jerry Hughes. That was a very intriguing offer,” Whaley said. “We thought, hey, he brings a dimension that would help on the opposite of Mario Williams. It was a no-brainer for us.”
Through the first 10 games of the season, Hughes has 33 tackles and a career-high six sacks. Sheppard, meanwhile, has just 18 tackles and one sack for the Colts.
“If there’s anything that I’ve always wanted to do, it’s to be out there on Sunday, so now that I’ve had this opportunity, you know, I’m going to take advantage of it,” Hughes said.
The Bills have gotten 17 sacks from Hughes and Williams combined. That’s the third most in the NFL among teammates – behind the Kansas City duo of Tamba Hali and Justin Houston (20) and St. Louis’ Robert Quinn and Chris Long (18.5).
Hughes is coming off his best game of the season Sunday against Pittsburgh. Although he played just 28 snaps, he registered his first career two-sack game.
“We had him most of the time on the field on third down and that type of situation, so he had less snaps in the base downs,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said. “I think you saw that he could be more productive in that situation.”
The website Pro Football Focus, which grades every play of every NFL game, ranked Hughes among its top 10 3-4 outside linebackers in the past month, with 19 total pressures and two forced fumbles. But the individual accolades that have started to come have barely registered with the 25-year-old from Sugar Land, Texas.
“Because we’re still not winning. You always want to be on the winning side,” he said. “I know the history of the Buffalo Bills. Being from Houston, I know about the greatest comeback of all time. I know what Bills fans are used to seeing.
“We see it every day in the field house. Going to the Super Bowl four years straight, I mean, that’s incredible. You pick up on the history and see how bad everybody wants to win. You want to bring that to the city.”
Hughes is actually a junior. He credits his father, Jerry, and mother, Pam, for reaching the NFL.
“If there’s one thing they instilled in me, it’s a work ethic, and realizing nothing in this world is easy or free,” the younger Hughes said. “You’re going to have to put the work in – and then maybe some extra – to get to where you want.”
Growing up about 30 miles outside Houston, Hughes wasn’t just a football player. He pitched and played third base for Stephen F. Austin High School, and also at different times as a child played soccer, basketball and ran track.
“He’s always been an athlete,” Jerry Hughes Sr. said this week in a phone interview. “He stayed focused on sports, which really kept him going in school and kept him busy. He just excelled, which was a blessing.”
Hughes followed in his father’s footsteps by playing running back in high school. As a senior, he gained 1,412 yards and scored 21 touchdowns, while adding 215 receiving yards and three more scores as a returner, making the all-district team in his only year as a starter.
Despite those big numbers, he was recruited to Texas Christian University as a defensive end by coach Gary Patterson.
“It definitely took some time to warm up to it,” Hughes said. “I mean, I was 200 pounds. I’m having someone tell me that I need to gain all this weight, I’ve got to put my hand on the ground. I never saw myself doing that in a million years.”
Patterson, however, had a track record of success with converting players to new positions. So, somewhat begrudgingly, Hughes made the switch. He slowly put on weight, and now checks in at 6-foot-2, 254 pounds. He didn’t lose the explosive first step he had as a running back, however, and started to put it all together as a junior, when he took over as a full-time starter and registered 15 sacks, which led the country. He was a first-team All-American.
“The odds are really stacked against you to make the NFL,” Hughes Sr. said. “My goal for him was just to get a scholarship, play in college, and get a good job from that. Going to the NFL was just a dream. It started in his junior year at TCU. They started writing about him and talking about him and I thought, ‘wow, maybe he can make it.’ I was just really excited for him. Coach Patterson gave him the opportunity and he just ran with it.”
Hughes followed up with 11.5 sacks in his senior season, and was taken with the 31st overall pick by the Colts.
“Any time I get a chance to step foot out on that field, it’s an opportunity to improve myself, to take what I’ve been working on throughout the week as far as practice reps go,” he said. “It’s a lot better feeling, a big confidence boost that I’m doing it like I was in the past, just not only doing it on the practice field. Now I’ve got the chance to go out there on a Sunday and perform.”
When he does Sunday at home against the New York Jets, Jerry Hughes Sr. will be there to watch. He’s traveled to every one of his son’s NFL games.
Hughes, who lives with his girlfriend and their two dogs, has one year left on his contract. He sounds like a player who’d like to stick around.
“You can see the passion that they bring to the games,” Hughes said of Bills fans. “You’re playing for them. I’m just doing my best to help get this team back on a winning track.”