HOOVER, Ala. -- Last year's season-opener should have been a moment of triumph for Jay Hughes. His unranked Mississippi State Bulldogs went into Reliant Stadium in Houston against the No. 13 Oklahoma State Cowboys with something to prove. Down three starters in the secondary, including two NFL-caliber cornerbacks, it was thought that the game would devolve into a shootout that favored the air-it-out Cowboys offense, which had averaged 547 yards and 45.7 points per game the season prior.
Hughes heard "all the negative things about the secondary," he said toward the end of fall camp. He also heard one Cowboys player say that, "Sometimes those SEC defenses lose their breath" against up-tempo offenses like theirs. He heard it all, and showed up anyways, ready for his first full season as a starter at safety. And for two series, it looked like Hughes and his defense would have the last laugh.
But with a second straight three-and-out in sight, Hughes stepped in front of a pass from Clint Chelf, knocked down the ball and immediately fell to one knee. He could have been stepped on or fallen awkwardly; you couldn't tell from the television replay. Writhing on the turf, he grabbed his right heel, and after a minute or so, tried to get to the sideline under his own power but couldn't. With the support of two trainers, he limped out of the frame. He had a torn ACL. His season was over.
It was hard for everyone on the team to see Hughes go down like that. Veteran linebacker Bernardrick McKinney described it as a "very emotional time for Jay." He had a decision to make: Either ask "Why me?" or "What can I do?" He chose the latter.
"I knew the moment I got hurt I still had to be there for my teammates," Hughes said. "I was still going to meetings, still going to special teams meetings, all while I was doing my rehab."
After a couple of road trips spent recuperating at home in Starkville, Mississippi, he decided enough was enough. He was going to the Texas A&M game to be a part of his team no matter what.
"I said, 'I'm going to pack my bags. I'm going to go with my boys this week,'" he said. "I'm on the sideline with crutches and a boot. I'm there saying, 'I don't need no crutches.'"
As the lone member of the Juice Boys in College Station that day -- the group whose "role is to keep the crowd going" is made of primarily scout team players who don't usually travel to away games -- he wrapped two towels together in order to better stand out. And he did, especially to his teammates.
"That means a lot," McKinney said. "He has a lot of heart. He pushes us even when he's hurt. He was at every game trying to push us up, even in the bad times telling us, 'We got it.'"
Despite losing the opener to Oklahoma State, 21-3, and dropping five of the next nine games, Mississippi State rallied to win three straight and finish 7-6 overall.
Instead of entering this season with a bleak outlook and a lack of experience on defense, there's hope and optimism and depth on both sides of the ball. The secondary alone returns three starters -- not including Hughes, who wasn't able to fully participate in spring practice but will be 100 percent in time for fall camp, which begins Thursday.
"I'm back, so let's go," Hughes said. "It's time. Let's do it.
"I'm hungry. I'm ready to eat. It's really good to be back on the field."
"Him coming back made his life complete again," McKinney said. "He's a hard worker. He's getting the safeties right. He's back running full-speed."
Coach Dan Mullen called Hughes a "great young man, worker and leader" on defense.
"It is a huge lift for all of our guys to have him back," he said.
Even quarterback Dak Prescott has noticed.
"They're all following Jay's lead," he said. "When you have a guy like that to look up to, it's fantastic."
If Hughes is setting the tone, it might be best described as "Championship or bust."
After so many years of running in the middle of the pack of the SEC West, Mississippi State feels this season is its best chance to reach Atlanta. Alabama and LSU have new quarterbacks, and Auburn has one of the toughest schedules in the conference. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have a promising offense with Prescott under center, a defense loaded with depth and young talent such as rising star Chris Jones, and a schedule that sets up favorably with no real challenges out of conference and an SEC East rotation that includes Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
"It's almost like we know, man," Hughes said of the team's hunger to win a championship. "It's almost like we know. We have as good of talent as anybody with the numbers and the experience we have on the field. And with that, it's all up to us.
"We have the talent, we have the numbers, now what are we going to do?"
Expectations have risen among coaches, fans, family and "even ourselves," Hughes said. After the way last season went down and the promise that lies ahead, Hughes isn't ready to waste the opportunity.
"It's really serious right now," he said. "I tell my guys as soon as you step in this building, nothing else matters. You get that look in your eyes, and let's go, let's work."