When a player comes out of high school and is signed without a true position, wearing just the label of “ATH,” it can make for a confusing couple of years.
That’s been the case for Zy’Aire Hughes, who signed with Kentucky out of McCracken County High School with a listed position of “athlete.”
He excelled mostly at quarterback and running back for the Mustangs, amassing 4,914 yards and 46 touchdowns to go with 2,779 rushing yards and 53 touchdowns. But he also dabbled at wide receiver and defensive back.
Hughes has tried multiple positions for Kentucky, too. Much of his UK career has been about finding where he fits and where he can help. His first season, Hughes donned a red shirt and worked with wide receivers.
Last season, he played special teams with a little bit of cornerback, playing in seven games with one total tackle.
Now he’s back on offense, playing wide receiver — a position with limited numbers for the Cats, especially this spring — and Hughes hopes he’s found his niche.
“Playing quarterback got me here, really,” he said. “But this spring has been about becoming a receiver instead of an athlete. It’s coming to me slowly. You can’t just be an athlete and be a good receiver. You just have to use technique and play the game.”
The good news for Hughes is being an athlete helps. He’s speedy and elusive at times, which helped him catch four passes for 56 yards and a touchdown in the Blue-White Spring Game.
It was nice getting some catches, Hughes said.
“You know what you can do, but when you actually go out there and do it, it’s a relief,” the 6-foot-1, 182-pound sophomore said.
There were other near catches that remind Hughes and his coaches that there’s still work to be done.
“I could’ve done better, honestly,” he said after the spring game. “I’m not going to say I played horrible, but I’m not going to say I played great either.”
That was the basic assessment from Hughes’ head coach, too.
“He’s working and he needs to continue to work,” Coach Mark Stoops said of Hughes after the spring game. “There’s a lot of details that go into playing winning football, and he’s working at it, and I appreciate it.”
What are the details Hughes is working on?
“Mental habits and work ethic,” he smiled. “There will be times when I come in and study extra film, then there’s days when I don’t. So I should probably be more consistent with that.”
Hughes acknowledges that there are times when he takes a play off after making an impressive play.
It’s not something he does intentionally, Hughes said, noting that the transition from a high school standout who was invested heavily in every play to a guy running routes he’s never run before — that may not lead to him even getting the ball — has been complicated.
“You’re so used to having direct contact with the ball and the ball always being in your hands to going and running a route, trying to get open, trying to get the ball in your hands,” he said.
Hughes could be a welcome addition to a position group that needs extra bodies with the graduation of four wide-outs in Garrett Johnson, Charles Walker, Blake Bone and Kayaune Ross.
That’s 95 collective catches for 1,239 total yards that needs replacing.
The only returning wide receivers with Southeastern Conference game experience are Dorian Baker, who sat out last season with an ankle injury, Tavin Richardson (27 catches, 371 yards, one touchdown), Josh Ali (three catches, 25 yards), Lynn Bowden (17 catches, 210 yards), Isaiah Epps (four catches, 55 yards) and Clevan Thomas (one catch, 4 yards).
It could mean an opportunity for an “ATH” who is willing to work — and get on coaches’ radars — before the influx of true freshman wide receivers arrives this summer including Marvin Alexander, Allen Dailey, Akeem Hayes and Bryce Oliver.
“He has some juice and he has some speed and he can get open,” Stoops said of Hughes. “We all want to see him on the field, but he’s got to be consistent all the time in what he’s doing and assignments and technique and all those things.”
For his part, Hughes will try to leave a more lasting impression now that he’s back at wide receiver.
“My goal is to help contribute to the team and try to be the best player I can be no matter where that is.”