Hughes stands out in Vikings debut: ‘Why we drafted him’

In this Sept. 9, 2018, file photo, Minnesota Vikings cornerback Mike Hughes celebrates after returning an interception 28-yards for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, in Minneapolis. Hughes was forced into a heavy role in his NFL debut by injuries in Minnesota's secondary, and this week the rookie has been preparing to face Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. There's no easing in for this first-round draft pick. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn, File)

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — For all the heads Mike Hughes has turned in practice with Minnesota since the Vikings picked him in the first round of the draft , they certainly harbored no plan to play him on 79 percent of the snaps on defense in his first real NFL game.

That’s what happened in his debut, though, thanks to injuries to two fellow cornerbacks. Hughes had an interception return for a touchdown and a team-leading three pass breakups in Minnesota’s 24-16 victory over San Francisco .

“You can kind of tell the way he carries himself that he’s not going to freeze up on the big stage,” free safety Harrison Smith said.

Production like that provided affirmation of general manager Rick Spielman’s decision to ignore needs on the offensive line when Hughes became available with the 30th overall selection.

“We expect him to go out there and do that,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I mean, that’s why we drafted him. Everybody was complaining about taking that corner. I’m glad we had him.”

Mackensie Alexander’s ankle injury kept him out of the season opener, so Hughes took over as the slot cornerback in the nickel package, a position used more often than the weak side linebacker these days and essentially a starting role. Then cornerback Trae Waynes hurt his knee in the second quarter. With Terence Newman now an assistant coach, Hughes was promoted again to the outside opposite Xavier Rhodes.

“If a player tells you he doesn’t get butterflies before a game, he’s lying. I think it’s natural,” Hughes said. “After the first play, I was good. I settled in and went through my calls and played within the scheme.”

Hughes made some mistakes, of course, on a handful of long gains by the 49ers. He has a lot to learn yet about the game. His attention to detail, however, has stood out to Vikings coaches and players since organized practices began in the spring. So has his athleticism, confidence and instincts. That’s atypical for a rookie.

“Honestly, he plays like he’s been in the league before,” Rhodes said, “and I think years down the road he’s going to be one of the best.”

Hughes wasn’t the only inexperienced player thrust into unexpected action for the Vikings, who despite their status as Super Bowl contender have the NFC’s youngest squad with an average age of 25.47 years on the opening roster.

Backup safety Jayron Kearse replaced Hughes at the nickel back spot. Though he’s been a valuable special teams players over his first two years, Kearse’s only career start as a rookie in 2016 at Chicago was best remembered for a 69-yard run by Bears running back Jordan Howard aided by an awkward overplay by Kearse as he approached in tackling position.

SERIES RECORD – Packers lead 60-53-2

LAST MEETING – Vikings beat Packers 16-0, Dec. 23, 2017

LAST WEEK – Vikings beat 49ers 24-16; Packers beat Bears 24-23

AP PRO32 RANKING – Vikings No. 3, Packers No. 6

VIKINGS OFFENSE – OVERALL (15), RUSH (15t), PASS (17).

VIKINGS DEFENSE – OVERALL (12t), RUSH (9), PASS (18).

PACKERS OFFENSE – OVERALL (10), RUSH (28), PASS (7).

PACKERS DEFENSE – OVERALL (6), RUSH (24), PASS (7).

STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES – Vikings swept season series last year, first time since 2009.

… QB Kirk Cousins 20 of 36 for 244 yards, two TDs in Vikings debut last week. … RB Dalvin Cook had 95 total yards in first game back since knee injury in Week 4 last year. … WR Stefon Diggs has 18 catches for 271 yards and three TDs in last three games vs. Packers. … TE Kyle Rudolph has four TDs in past four road games.

… DE Everson Griffen has five sacks, two forced fumbles in past six games against Green Bay. .

… Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has 19 TDs, four INTs and 111.8 rating in nine career home games vs. Vikings. … Rodgers only player to have four games with four-plus TD passes and no INTs against Minnesota.

… RB Jamaal Williams averaging 72.7 yards over past three home games. … WR Davante Adams has TD in last four games against Vikings. … WR Randall Cobb tied for ninth in franchise history with 22 receiving TDs at home. … DL Kenny Clark had career-high two sacks in last meeting. … LB Nick Perry with four sacks in three career games at Lambeau against Vikings. … S Kentrell Brice led team last week with career-high nine tackles and had first career sack.

Fantasy tip: Rodgers threw three TD passes in fourth quarter against Bears after returning from knee injury despite being limited to pocket.

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