LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker is blunt as to why he wanted Hank Hughes as his defensive line coach.
The second reason is Banker thinks Hughes can recruit.
The first reason Banker “loves” the guy?
“He’s got a toughness about him as a person and coach,” said Banker, who has personal, visceral experience. He was a fullback on Springfield (Massachusetts) College teams that also featured Hughes as a linebacker. They had more than a few collisions in practice that Hughes called “eye-opener drills.”
Hughes was pretty good at stopping the run then. And throughout his 36-year coaching career — which included a 13-year stint at Connecticut when the Huskies went from FBS upstart to BCS bowl participant in 2010 — he’s coached defensive lines to stuff the run.
“You’ve got to be relentless,” Hughes said. “And you’ve got to do it over and over. Relentless. Chase the ball. If you can do those things, it’s demoralizing to an offense when a group doesn’t stop and keeps coming after you.”
The numbers show that he was successful in establishing that relentlessness. At UConn, where he coached from 2001 to 2013, his units consistently stopped the run, even after the Huskies moved to the Big East and started playing tougher competition. UConn allowed 3.37 yards per carry in 2008 (21st nationally), 3.77 in 2009 (46th), 3.90 in 2010 (44th), 2.67 in 2011 (4th), 2.73 in 2012 (2nd) and 3.69 in 2013 (25th).
Hughes then took the defensive coordinator job at Cincinnati for the 2014 season. The landing was initially rough — the Bearcats gave up 50, 41 and 55 points in successive weeks to Ohio State, Memphis and Miami (Florida) — before the defense turned a significant corner during a seven-game winning streak. The Bearcats gave up averages of 358 total yards and 16.7 points during that stretch.
When new Nebraska coach Mike Riley hired Banker, he asked Banker to make a list with four or five names on it. Hughes was one of them. So was Oregon State’s Joe Seumalo, who joined UNLV’s staff as a defensive line coach. Banker reached out to Hughes and asked if he was interested. Discussions went back and forth — Hughes’ wife is from northern Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati — but Hughes was ultimately wooed by the chance to work with Banker and NU’s reputation.
“It’s Nebraska,” Hughes said. “That says it all. It’s Nebraska. I’ve been watching Nebraska football as a kid. It’s one of the pinnacle places in college football.”
That’s one reason why he didn’t require a defensive coordinator title to move schools. There’s no evidence he was on the way out at Cincinnati.
“I’m not ego-driven on what my title is or what my responsibility is,” Hughes said. “If you’re doing your best and you’re putting your ideas together, there’s a way to contribute. Whether you’re the guy making the call or not.”
Hughes’ career reflected that hard work ethic, Banker said. He spent years working for Jim Pletcher — Hughes’ defensive coordinator at Springfield College and later defensive coordinator at Memphis and associate head coach at Wyoming — before coaching for Montreal in the World League of American Football when Riley was coaching the San Antonio Riders in the same league. He worked at Harvard for four years under Tim Murphy — another former Springfield teammate who has made the Crimson the Ivy League’s dominant program — and had a 13-year stint at Connecticut.
Banker said Hughes is a strong recruiter. Hughes said a team can never have enough good players and focuses on relationships in recruiting.
“I want people to know: you can trust me, you can take it to the bank, you can count on me,” Hughes said.
Since taking the job, he’s begun to watch tape of the returning Huskers and plans to have a meeting with each player about their goals and skills. Because Cincinnati played Miami after Nebraska did, Hughes got a glimpse of the Huskers on crossover tape during the season. He was most impressed with junior tackle Maliek Collins.
“Who’s No. 7? That’s what I wanted to know,” Hughes said.
He’ll tell Collins and the rest of the Husker linemen the same thing: Stuff the run.
“That was a huge emphasis for us,” Hughes said. “That’s what we set our principles off of.”
And be tough about it, too. Hughes perhaps gets it from his mother, Eleanor, who is 87 years old and still living in Albany, New York, where Hughes grew up.
“She still snow blows her own driveway and mows her own lawn,” Hughes said.
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