Rusty Simmons, Chronicle Staff Writer
Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory's resume consists of almost 20 years of coaching experience and two decades worth of statistics that prove his defensive philosophies to be dependable, but Daymeion Hughes needed only a few weeks of practice to convince his coach of one necessary overhaul. "Every summer, I used to sit down, go through the list of recruits and think about which ones might be able to play for us right away," Gregory said. "I didn't think Daymeion Hughes would be an early starter for us, but he proved me wrong pretty quickly. "I don't predict that stuff anymore." Four years after his arrival and winning arguments in Berkeley, Hughes is faced with a similar situation as he prepares for the NFL draft, which lingers just days away. Once again, a flock of defensive gurus seems to be writing off Hughes.
The Ronnie Lott Trophy winner and the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year has dropped from a projected first-round pick to being drafted as late as the fourth round. According to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., Hughes has dropped from the second- to the 10th-best cornerback in the draft and from a Patriots first-round pick to a compensatory pick in the fourth round. Hughes' stock might have fallen as much as anyone in the draft, and most of the precipitous drop can be attributed to a slow time in the 40-yard dash. Running with a less-than-healthy hamstring, Hughes was clocked at 4.74-seconds at the combine and countered with a 4.56 at Cal's Pro Day; NFL corners usually are expected to run in the 4.4 range. "The whole falling-stock thing is based on one run," said Hughes, who measured 5-foot-101/2 and 190 pounds at the NFL Combine. "A whole career can't be negated by one run." Hughes remains calm, because he has been here before. Think back to Gregory's original assessment. At the time, Gregory actually was considering using Hughes as a running back. Would he ever settle into one position? Would he ever fill out his frame? Would he ever become an every-down player? There's no question about those three issues anymore. Scouts believe Hughes' instincts and ball skills to be as polished as anyone at the position; his sculpted body is close to the prototype for a corner, and, on almost a week-to-week basis, he pretty much shut down a top-notch receiver who probably will end up being drafted in an earlier round than Hughes will. "I don't really see the questions as positives anymore," said Hughes, who was second in the nation with eight interceptions last season. "I'm going to do what I have to do regardless, and I'll definitely use it as motivation, but I feel like I've proven myself."
NFL scouts appear to agree, but few, if any, are willing to deem Hughes worthy of a first-round pick. "It's like Christmas; Hughes isn't the shiny, bright toy that gets people excited, but he's the toy that you play with the longest," NFL Draft Blitz President Chris Horwedel said. "He may never make it to Hawaii (to the Pro Bowl) or grace the cover of Madden, but he's going to be a rock for some lucky team for a long while." Many NFL decision-makers compare Hughes to Tampa Bay corner Ronde Barber, a third-round pick who emerged to Pro Bowl status while playing in the Buccaneers' Cover-2 scheme, a system that gives slower corners safety help over the top. "I came away from the Senior Bowl being very impressed," president of NFL Draft Countdown Scott Wright said before making a comparison to Michigan's Leon Hall, who is the consensus pick as the top corner prospect. "Hughes and Hall were on the same team, and they were going back and forth on the practice field, making plays. It was pretty much a wash between who was more impressive."