STARKVILLE — Jay Hughes had to be there.
He had to be there for his teammates, for his team, and for himself.
In the weeks after he suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in the 2013 season opener vs. Oklahoma State, Hughes, the Mississippi State junior safety faced a choice: He could withdraw and rehabilitate on his own, or he could attend every practice, go to every meeting, and stand on the sideline every game.
The choice was easy.
“Life is full of ups and downs,” Hughes said at the Southeastern Conference’s annual Media Days event in Hoover, Alabama. “I counted that injury as a down and moved forward. When I got hurt, I still had to be there for my teammates. Being on this team, I represent something bigger than myself, so even though I was on the side, I was still going to meetings, still going to practice … I just wanted to be there.”
Now a senior, Hughes hopes his return bolsters a secondary that struggled early but improved in his absence.
A leader on the field and a tremendous representative for MSU off it, Hughes remembers the moment he lost his junior season.
“It was play six,” Hughes said. “Just the sixth play of the season. I will never forget that.”
To that point, the Oak Grove High product had shown great promise in limited duty at safety in his first two seasons in Starkville. Through the end of his sophomore campaign, Hughes had 43 tackles. He added one against Oklahoma State before disaster struck.
While the play — an innocent-looking pass across the middle — sticks in his mind, Hughes is ready to move forward as part of a defense that returns nine starters from a year ago.
“I traveled with the team every road trip and I just worked hard with rehab every day,” Hughes said. “I was waiting for the opportunity to get back out there.”
Hughes’ absence affected the defense. By the end of the season, though, MSU’s defensive backfield was as good as any in the conference. Players like Kendrick Market, a redshirt sophomore from Batesville, and McComb’s Deontay Evans emerged, as Market finished third on the team in tackles with 63, while Evans had 19.
Following a 51-41 loss in early November to Texas A&M and former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, MSU’s defense yielded one touchdown pass in its last four games, an 11-yard connection from Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron to wide receiver Amari Cooper. In victories against Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Rice , MSU allowed an average of 133 passing yards and zero touchdowns. MSU also had four interceptions.
Hughes said it was bittersweet watching MSU’s defensive backfield mature.
“I was right there,” Hughes said. “We learned how to finish games. I wanted to be out there, but being able to see our guys start finishing games the way we did, it was unbelievable.”
Hughes will compete for playing time in a crowded and experienced defensive backfield. Market and Evans return at safety. Former East Mississippi Community College standout Justin Cox has moved from cornerback to safety, where he earned All-America honors at Scooba, and will join Hughes. All-SEC candidates Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love also return at cornerback.
“I don’t really think that’s a bad thing,” Hughes said of the team’s experience in the defensive backfield. “Once one of us steps off the field, we never miss a beat at safety. Whether I’m in there or Kendrick Market, Justin Cox, Kivon Coleman, or Deontay Evans, it’s all going to be the same. I think it comes with raising our expectation level.”
Hughes isn’t shy about sharing his expectations for MSU in 2014.
“I want to go to the White House,” Hughes said. “I always tell my teammates I have this suit I’ve been wanting to wear for a long time, so they need to help me get to the White House.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat