Cowbell Corner Q&A: MSU associate head coach/nickelbacks coach Tony Hughes on Leach, recruiting and more

Joel Coleman

Earlier this week, Cowbell Corner caught up with Mississippi State associate head football coach Tony Hughes. Part of this conversation was used to put together THIS ARTICLE FROM EARLIER IN THE WEEK on how the old state of Mississippi flag has impacted recruiting through the years. Now here is the rest of Cowbell Corner's chat with Hughes:

Cowbell Corner: You’ve been through a lot in your coaching career, but nothing like the last few months I’m sure. What has all this been like for you?

Tony Hughes: It has definitely been an adjustment and transition because of the pandemic and being out of school for so long. This will be my 35th year of coaching and like a lot people, I’ve never seen anything like this. No spring ball. No spring game. There’s nothing to evaluate your kids on and you’re kind of just hoping everything is going to be fine in the future. So you just get back to work. It’s an adjustment to try to keep everybody, coaches and administrators and everyone in the program, healthy and prepare for an SEC football season on top of that. It’s a lot of moving parts to find success, so what you try to do is just stay focused on doing your job and just praying and hoping every day that things will get better so we can keep moving forward as we prepare for the season.

Cowbell Corner: Considering your experience with this team and these players, how much of a sounding board have you had to be for this new coaching staff since there wasn’t a spring and you guys haven’t been on the field?

Hughes: I would say quite a bit. One, being back at Mississippi State – I was here from 2009 to 2016 then was back in 2019 – so I’ve been around the program for about 10 years except for two or three years when I wasn’t around. So I’ve just tried to familiarize them with just the uniqueness of Mississippi State. A lot of the kids that come to school at Mississippi State love Mississippi State. This is where they want to be. There are unique dynamics with this location and the traditions of Mississippi State being built on work ethic and the chip on the shoulder. Of course it has helped being familiar with the players. And when I came back to Mississippi State (for this stint) I was on the offensive side of the ball and now I’m switching over to the defensive side. That helps a lot. I was able to see both sides last year even though I was on offense. Some of the kids I’m familiar with and may have recruited them before I left. Now they’re fifth-year seniors. All of those things help when the coaches ask a question specifically about a certain kid or a certain way to do things to communicate based on the history and tradition of the program and what Coach Leach wants to establish moving forward.

Cowbell Corner: Coach Leach is well known for his unique personality. How have you meshed with him since he’s been here?

Hughes: We were here from January until the pandemic hit so he and I had a lot of opportunity to get to know each other during recruiting, then after the second signing day in February and through the offseason program until basically March when we were shut down. Moving through that, just communicating on things from time to time on different things coming up, it has been an excellent working relationship. Coach Leach, he doesn’t stand over you with a magnifying glass. He gives you a job to do. His expectation is for that job to be done. So you just try to fall in line and do the things that he expects. If you do that, he’s able to do the things that have made him a tremendous head coach, which he’s been through the years.

Cowbell Corner: You’re obviously coaching nickelbacks this year. Who are some guys you could see stepping up and shining in that role?

Hughes: We’ve got Marcus Murphy playing there now. We’ve got J.P. Purvis who we’re hoping will be able to play. And Janari Dean, the true freshman out of Batesville. We’re planning on him playing there. Of course a lot can change between now and the time we start training camp. We’re a month and a half away from that happening in early August. But just those body types. Really the nickelback is just an extra safety. We’ll play our defense in the 3-3-5. The five of course stands for five defensive backs on the field. Some people call that the nickel, so that helps counteract the spread offenses that you play today. You have extra defensive backs already in the game and it used to be what some people called the 4-2-5 or the 4-3 with a nickel, but with a nickel, you’re automatically going to play five defensive backs in this defense so it’s very unique. You’re always going to need extra safeties as you are recruiting or you’ll take a corner and move to safety. Or a lot of people will take the best cover corner and put him at nickelback. But with our scheme, right now, we’re going to play with three safeties.

Cowbell Corner: Can you put into words how much of a difference what you guys will be doing this year as opposed to what you’ve done the last couple years?

Hughes: In a lot of ways, defense is just terminology. It’s like speaking English. Sometimes you can cross over and say certain things that trigger or mean the same things as far as terminology and techniques and assignments and things like that. When you talk about the overall schematics, it’s different because you’re playing mostly just a three-down front, where for (former defensive coordinator Bob Shoop) that might’ve just been a third-down package. For us now, it’s an every-down package if that makes sense. That’s a totally different thought process, but maybe one of the blitzes Coach Shoop ran, he called it something and it’s now called the same thing so there may be some crossover there. But there are a lot of differences in the two different schemes. Also though, there are some similarities.

Cowbell Corner: You’re of course known around this state for your recruiting abilities. Has recruiting changed at all for you now that you’re working for a coach that does thing a little bit differently?

Hughes: The thing is Coach Leach has a great recruiting staff. You look at the work he did at Texas Tech, which is a mid-level Big 12 team. You know it’s different and unique. It’s not Texas. It’s not Texas A&M. It’s not Oklahoma. But he still won big there. Then you go out to Washington State who had a long dry spell and he turned them into winners. The whole key to that success is recruiting. It’s being able to find the kids that fits his scheme offensively and the type of kids that can play in Lubbock, Texas, or Pullman, Washington, or in Starkville, Mississippi. They have a unique way of recruiting and they try to find those kids that fit the program. Everybody doesn’t fit in those places and everybody doesn’t fit in Starkville, but those that do fit, they are developed and it becomes a winning program because of the style of play and things like that. Finding kids to come to Mississippi State – I mean we’ve signed kids that are four-and-five stars – but we’ve also signed kids that were not highly recruited but they have a chip on their shoulder and a point to prove and they go on and become the best players we signed. Working with this staff, they understand that dynamic, but also being able to bridge the gap in the state of Mississippi because kids from Mississippi love coming to play for Mississippi State.

Cowbell Corner: Speaking of recruiting, the old state flag has obviously just been retired. How much of an obstacle has that been for you on the recruiting trail and do you anticipate things being at least a little easier now that the old flag has come down?

Hughes: In the past, when you’re recruiting instate kids, it didn’t have much of an impact as it did recruiting kids from out of state. The people that were out of state always considered the old Mississippi – the civil rights movement and some of the brutal and harsh things when you say the word, ‘Mississippi’. Especially the older generations. They’d have statements like, ‘Me and my child can’t come to Mississippi. We appreciate it, Coach, but we’re just not coming.’ It definitely, with the attention it has gotten in the last few weeks, it definitely helps and changes the dynamic of how people outside the state look at us and look at the state. It’s definitely going to be helpful as far as recruiting in the future for sure.

Cowbell Corner: So the flag and the perception of Mississippi was something you did kind of have to fight over the years?

Hughes: As far as recruiting young people, the youngsters themselves, it didn’t have as much of an impact because not all of them understand the history of it. But their parents or grandparents or elders did. So in recruiting, there is always someone that’s going to help you with a kid whether it’s their coach or their parents or their grandparents or a cousin or uncle – whoever it is. So when the people involved in the recruitment are there and the kid goes to them and says, ‘What should I do’, they would oftentimes educate on the meaning of what the flag was or the brutal racial history of Mississippi. I think that’s where it came from more than the kids themselves.

Cowbell Corner: So, in your opinion, getting a new state flag will help at least a little on the recruiting trail?

Hughes: There’s no doubt. It has had its negativity toward us in recruiting. I wouldn’t say it made or broke the program because we did have success recruiting kids out of state. But there were some kids or parents that would bring up, ‘Hey coach, we appreciate the offer and the opportunity, but we’re not coming to a school in Mississippi because of this.’”

Cowbell Corner: Do you have any idea how often the flag or the perception of Mississippi swung a recruiting battle?

Hughes: Sometimes you run into it and don’t even know. You might not know until after the fact. You might have a kid and think things are going well and something just happens and something changes. You just can’t quite put your finger on it, then later on, somebody will tell you and you’ll know, ‘That’s what it was.’ I couldn’t tell you how many instances.