Oct. 4, 2006
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) - Although Daymeion Hughes has been heralded as one of college football's best cornerbacks for two seasons now, he didn't believe he deserved the hype - until this fall.
Even the self-deprecating California senior must acknowledge he's playing pretty well through the first five games of the 16th-ranked Golden Bears' season. Other observers are even more effusive about the quiet art major from south-central Los Angeles who has developed into one of the nation's most coveted defensive backs.
"I don't know how you play much better than Daymeion is playing right now," coach Jeff Tedford said. "He has such a great knack, and he studies the game so well. I would find it very hard to play much better."
Hughes is second in the nation with five interceptions, returning two for touchdowns - including his highlight-reel, 47-yard score against Arizona State last month. He has become so scary to opposing offenses that they sometimes stop looking at his side of the field entirely, as Oregon State mostly did in Cal's 41-13 road victory last weekend.
With the Golden Bears (4-1) gearing up for their high-stakes showdown with No. 11 Oregon (4-0) on Saturday, Hughes' unique blend of skills will be more important than ever. He hopes his game is peaking at just the right time to combat quarterback Dennis Dixon and the Ducks' talented receivers in their potent spread offense.
"At the end of last year, I got a lot of honors and awards, but I didn't have the type of year I wanted to have," said Hughes, an all-conference selection last season. "This is the type of year I expect from myself. I'm a little more experienced, and I'm taking care of my body a little better."
Hughes' graceful skills are impressive, but his toughness is expected to make him a high NFL draft choice next April - perhaps the first cornerback taken, if his offseason workouts live up to his potential.
He has become a physical leader of Cal's defense, with 25 tackles already this season despite very few catches in front of him. Though he spends his class time painting and creating other forms of art, he loves the brute force of football as well.
"He was pretty solid last year, and he made a lot of plays on the ball," Tedford said. "He's an all-around good player. He's a great tackler. Sometimes you find cornerbacks that can cover, but can't tackle. Daymeion can do both, and he likes to do both. That's why he's special."
Though he had five interceptions last season, Hughes didn't feel he was a complete player. Encouraged by the team's training staff, he embarked on a rigorous offseason program that included everything from weight training and distance running to classes at Funky Door Yoga in downtown Berkeley, which he credits with dramatic improvement in his core strength.
"My ability to control my body is better," said Hughes, whose friends and family call him by his middle name, Dante. "I can stop, turn and go the other way much better than I could last year. You feel it in your core strength, inside you."
When fellow starting cornerback Tim Mixon went down with a knee injury before the season opener, Hughes knew his responsibilities would increase. He has been a valuable mentor to Syd'Quan Thompson, the freshman who took over for Mixon.
Hughes also has the benefit of going against Cal's diverse collection of talented receivers in practice. Speedster DeSean Jackson is a challenge, but tenacious Robert Jordan provides a different test - and don't forget tailback Marshawn Lynch, the nation's best pass-catching running back, according to Oregon coach Mike Bellotti.
"My experience in practice is what's getting me by in games," said Hughes, who first learned the game across from Geoff McArthur, Cal's career receptions leader.
"We've had tall receivers, strong receivers, fast receivers. There's nothing I can see that I haven't already seen in practice."