Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
A.J. Hughes knew he was in for a battle as he competed with three other walk-on punters in the preseason for the lone starting job on the Virginia Tech football team.
The freshman from Terre Haute North survived the ordeal and was the only person to punt for the Hokies this year, with 79 kicks for a 40.6-yard average. He had a long punt of 57 yards, had three for touchbacks, 18 fair catches, 22 downed inside the 20 and 15 of more than 50 yards.
Hughes culminated his first collegiate season by punting a whopping 11 times last month in VT’s 13-10 overtime win over Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Fla., the most times anyone has ever punted in a game in the illustrious career of legendary coach Frank Beamer.
He learned far more from the preseason competition than just the knowledge that he could punt a football a long way.
“The tryout thing was a battle,” Hughes said. “It was hard, and a learning experience. I faced a lot of adversity.
“I’m fortunate I came out on top, and the whole process made a man out of me,” he said. “I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’m glad for the opportunity I was given, and it made me learn how to work.”
Hughes is an outgoing, fun-loving guy who could be seen last winter as a member of North’s “Woelf Pack,” wearing outlandish theme costumes, leading cheers to annoy basketball opponents and doing flips.
Predictably, the massive crowds the Hokies performed before didn’t faze him much.
“It was quite the transition in terms of environment,” Hughes said. “Going from playing at North with a few hundred people in the stands, then our home games at Blacksburg and going to Death Valley [Clemson], Florida State or Georgia Tech — those places are all crazy.”
Hughes admits to being nervous for only the first two punts of the year, which came on Labor Day against Georgia Tech.
“After that, I really focused in,” he said, “and tried to take care of my job. I like the big stage — I’m kind of a showoff — and it helps me to do better. The whole season was a great experience, the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”
Hughes is happy with his performance, but still yearns to do even better.
“It was about average,” he said. “I’m happy with it overall. I wanted to get through the year with a 40-plus average and get a scholarship, and I was able to accomplish both of those goals.”
He will be working hard this spring to get his strength up, doing a lot of elliptical lifts and box jumps, with the focus not as much on length of punts but hang time.
“I’m really a situational punter,” he said. “The big thing is hang time and keeping the ball up high. I hit 5.0 [seconds of] hang time maybe once or twice this year, but that’s been struggling.
“The key to improving is really more about technique than strength, and explosion is the main thing.”
His story should sound a little familiar — free-spirited former Terre Haute North punter and track star turned big-time college football player. Lot of Steve Weatherford similarities there.
“Steve and Pat McAfee [of the Indianapolis Colts] have both been great advocates of my career,” Hughes said, noting lessons learned at the summer camp that Weatherford operates once each year in Terre Haute. “I didn’t get to talk to Steve much this season, except through social media, but I talked to his brother [Scott, of Eastern Illinois] a lot and he was also a big help.”
There are also some differences. Hughes did not call any of his own fake punts this season, as Weatherford has been known to do, and he kicks with his left foot, unlike the New York Giants’ star.
Being left-footed has its advantages.
“It gives the ball a different kind of spin,” he said, “and it’s harder for the return men to catch. The New England Patriots only sign left-footed punters.”
The obvious question — if the NFL is the eventual goal for Hughes — got the equally obvious answer.
“Of course,” he said. “I still have a lot of improving to do and a lot of work to get done here. We’ll worry about that later.”
Hughes was credited by the Virginia Tech stat crew with four tackles this year — “Really?” he said. “I didn’t think I had any” — and had an unfortunate experience in a game at Clemson when a snap sailed over his head and caused a scramble.
“I didn’t really freak out when that happened,” he said, “and I actually got off a pretty good rugby-style punt before I got rocked. It hurt pretty bad when I got hit.”
Hughes is proud of the fact that none of his punts was returned for a touchdown this year, and credits his coverage team with doing a great job in both reducing returns and downing punts deep in enemy territory.
It wasn’t hard for him to pick out several special moments from the past season, all of which came on the same night.
“It would have to be running out of the tunnel my first game on national TV against Georgia Tech, and my best friend [Cody Journell] kicking the tying and winning field goals,” he said. “We had a huge celebration and it was a blast.
“My family was all there, and it was one of the best moments of my life so far.”
Stay tuned, though. This story has just begun.
Joey Bennett is a former Tribune-Star sports reporter and copy editor who now teaches at Northview High School in Brazil. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.