Mike Hughes has played one NFL game. He already owns a souvenir — the football from his first career interception, a pick-six no less.
“I’m going to frame it,” he said. “Or give it to my mom.”
First he had to locate the ball, which was somewhere inside the Vikings locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium. And then he faced the daunting task of scrolling through scores of congratulatory messages that flooded his phone after his NFL debut.
Fitting, since Hughes was a busy man Sunday.
Pressed into full-time duty because of injuries, the first-round draft pick had an eventful launch to his career in a 24-16 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
Hughes had a 28-yard interception return for a touchdown and a pass breakup in the end zone after replacing injured cornerback Trae Waynes with the first-team defense.
“We’re always taught to stay ready,” Hughes said. “That’s what I did. When my number was called, I was ready.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer believes a team can never have enough cornerbacks. His punch line if someone asks how many cornerbacks he needs is: Just one more.
The opener supported that premise.
Mackensie Alexander was inactive because of an ankle injury. Then Waynes left the game in the first half after injuring his right knee.
Hughes was expected to split playing time with Alexander in the slot/nickel role. Instead, he replaced Waynes on the outside and safety Jayron Kearse took over at nickel.
The Vikings’ cornerback depth got stretched so thin that you half-expected the team to petition the league to let Terence Newman unretire and change out of his coaching gear at halftime.
So much for easing Hughes into action.
“We expect him to go out there and do that,” Zimmer said. “I mean, that’s why we drafted him. Everybody was complaining about taking a corner. I’m glad we had him today.”
The cornerback-vs.-offensive line draft debate probably won’t end, but Hughes showed why the organization valued him as a first-round talent. Zimmer noted that Hughes worked almost exclusively in the nickel position this past week, getting very few reps on the outside. Circumstances forced him to adapt on the fly against an offense known for its creativity.
Welcome to the NFL.
“If a player tells you he doesn’t get butterflies before a game he’s lying,” Hughes said. “It’s natural. But after the first play I was good.”
He was feeling really good after his interception in the third quarter. Zimmer called a heavy blitz on third-and-8. Three rushers closed in on 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who rushed his throw to avoid becoming road kill. His pass went right to Hughes, who had a clear path to the end zone to extend the lead to 17-3.
He became the first rookie in team history to return an interception for a touchdown in a season opener.
“I give all the credit to the defensive line,” Hughes said. “They got great pressure. Garoppolo threw a bad ball. I just took advantage of it.”
Hughes prevented a touchdown on the next series when he peeled off his receiver and broke up a pass in the end zone on third down.
“Just instincts,” he said. “I thought I had another pick but I kind of tripped on the turf. I just made a play to break it up.”
His performance wasn’t perfect. He got beat by Dante Pettis on a 39-yard completion in the fourth quarter. Zimmer saw other mistakes that need to be cleaned up.
“He had some unsure things going on that we’ll get corrected,” Zimmer said. “I think he’ll be better for it. He’s a good kid, good football player and he got a nice ball thrown to him one time.”
He didn’t have to work too hard for that one. The ball came right to him, a gift in his first game. What he did with it made for a special moment and keepsake that will always remind him of it.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org