TERRE HAUTE —
Terre Haute North senior A.J. Hughes made a verbal commitment last week to punt for coach Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech next season, and Hughes hopes to be the starter for the perennially ranked BCS program.
Hughes is also excited about studying at a business school that ranks in the nation’s top 50. The combination is a dream come true, he said.
“The campus is beautiful,” he said. “Just the right fit athletically and academically.”
Hughes’ ability to secure a college roster spot was given an assist by former Terre Haute North and New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford, who visited North on Tuesday for a rally for the Super Bowl.
Hughes had the chance to learn from Weatherford and Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee, whom Weatherford is friends with and brought to Terre Haute last summer for his camp at North.
McAfee helped Hughes get invited to the Kohl’s National Scholarship Camp, where Hughes was ranked as the 11th best in the nation at his position and eventually landed him his invitation to Blacksburg, Va.
“At the second practice at Weatherford’s camp, Pat took an interest in my ability,” Hughes recalled. “[McAfee] called up the [Kohl’s] camp founder, and got me a personal invite to the camp. Then I got ranked 11th in the nation after that. I kept in touch with Pat through the season. He and Steve are my mentors, helping me understand just what it takes to prepare to win.”
Hughes also attended instructional camps at Indiana University, Kentucky, Cincinnati and Purdue during the summer.
Hughes had a strong senior season for coach Chris Barrett at North, averaging more than 38 yards per punt. More crucial to the field position battle that the kicking game plays, Hughes placed 19 of his 45 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
He also had nine inside the 10 and 31 of his 45 had zero return, meaning they had quality hang time or he avoided dangerous return men by punting out of bounds.
“He’s worked really hard,” Barrett said. “He’s put a lot of time in, going around the country to camps. That’s where he got his name out. He performed well when he needed to.”
Hughes also takes his place among a rich North tradition of kickers to rise to the Division I ranks. He joins former Michigan kicker Kraig Baker, Northern Illinois kicker Kent Baker, current Eastern Illinois punter Scott Weatherford and Steve Weatherford, who honed his skills at Illinois.
Hughes is enjoying Weatherford’s first trip to the Super Bowl almost as much as Weatherford. Well, that would be overstating it considering the unreserved approach Weatherford takes in life.
“I’m ecstatic to watch Steve to finally see his hard work paying off, finally making it to the big dance,” Hughes said. “I’m in the same position he once was. He’s been a motivational factor in my pursuit in punting. I’ve really looked up to him. He really motivates me without talking.”
Hughes was honorable-mention all-state. He said Indiana State offered him a scholarship, along with IU, Northern Illinois, Ball State and Toledo.
Hughes is currently preparing for the spring track and field season. He’s one of the state’s top pole vaulters, having made the state finals twice. He was regional and sectional champion in 2011, hitting a high of 15 feet that came three inches from a school record.
“As far as this year, I hope to win state. I love pole vault. Coach Beamer’s really interested in me pole vaulting for Virginia Tech,” Hughes said.
Hughes’ prowess in track and field is something he has in common with Weatherford, who competed as a decathlete at Illinois. Hughes also competed on the national scene in BMX racing when he was 9 years old, while also later giving wrestling and ice hockey a try.
“He’s a lot like Steve in that he’s not just a very good kicker, he’s a very outgoing young man,” Barrett said. “He actually played some wide receiver for us throughout his career at North. We talked at the beginning of this season and knew he had a chance to do some special things punting the ball.”