If you want to grasp the full dimensions of the strength and athleticism Kentucky football is getting by signing McCracken County star Zy’Aire Hughes, here’s an anecdote to ponder.
As a junior, the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Hughes used his 37-inch vertical leap to go up for a dunk in a basketball game against Madisonville.
When Hughes came down, so did the backboard.
“People made that out to be a bigger deal than I did,” Hughes said, sounding sort of embarrassed. “But it did happen.”
Over the course of his football career at McCracken County, Hughes was a dynamic playmaker from varying spots on the field. This past year, Hughes ran for 1,170 yards and 17 touchdowns while catching four TD passes and throwing one.
As a junior, Hughes played quarterback, throwing for 1,253 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Kentucky recruited him as a wide receiver. How the Wildcats came to offer Hughes a scholarship can be traced to a team camp at UK.
“It was kind of crazy,” Hughes said. “We were real late. When we do get there, (UK’s coaches) are like, ‘We’ve got to see you run the 40.’ So I walked right off the bus and ran like a 4.42.”
By July 2014, Hughes was making a verbal commitment to play college football in Kentucky blue.
He’s stuck to his word, too, even though Kentucky has had three different offensive coordinators — Neal Brown, Shannon Dawson and, now, Eddie Gran/Darin Hinshaw — over the course of his commitment.
McCracken County Coach Shawn Jackson said a lot of other schools tried to get involved with Hughes in the late going, “but Zy’Aire was very loyal to Kentucky,” Jackson said. “He knew Kentucky was the place he wanted to be.”
Jackson, who in 2006 worked as the director of football recruiting at Missouri, says Hughes’ demeanor and athleticism remind him of William Moore, a star safety at Mizzou who is now with the Atlanta Falcons.
Hughes says Kentucky’s new offensive brain trust has told him he will start out as an outside receiver, not a slot receiver.
“I talked to Coach Hinshaw, and he said eventually they want all the receivers to learn each position, how to run all the different routes,” he said.
Though most good football players have come from Paducah Tilghman, the “city school,” and not from the county school system, McCracken County has sent more than its share to UK across the years.
“I aim,” Hughes says, “to be the next one.”