EAGAN, Minn. -- Standing on the sideline at Mile High Stadium last Saturday, Xavier Rhodes observed Minnesota Vikings rookie Mike Hughes in his first NFL action. Hughes' preseason debut against the Broncos included a near interception in the end zone on a perfectly tracked route, two tackles and snaps taken on the outside and in the slot.
Though evaluating a small sample size, Rhodes, who is widely considered the top cornerback in the league, gushed about his protégé's big-picture projection.
"He plays like he's been in the league before, and I think years down the road he's going to be one of the best in the league," Rhodes said.
Hughes' strong preseason performance was a talking point during the Vikings' final week of training camp when they linked up with Jacksonville for two days of joint practices. What he did in Denver and throughout camp earned Hughes several days of first-team reps at nickel corner, where he split time with Mackensie Alexander.
"I love when the coaches feel like they can trust me to put me out there with any group," Hughes said. "I try to go out there and play my hardest and do what I'm supposed to do, just trust my game and play ball."
It's all part of Mike Zimmer's strategy to learn where his young corners excel, by testing them in different roles to see how they best fit into the scheme. The only thing Hughes hasn't done is give the Vikings any doubt that he can handle the increased responsibility.
"For everything that we're asking him to do, to play inside and outside, he's been as good as any we've had in here with the attention to detail and what we're asking out of him," defensive coordinator George Edwards said. "He really has excelled. You could see it carry over from practice right to the game. It wasn't [too] big for him at all."
Right now, Hughes is getting a taste of what he grew used to during a stretch at UCF that propelled him into being a first-rounder. He admits staying patient is difficult at times when he has had his taste of first-team action and sees an opportunity to possibly compete for a starting role with Alexander.
"I'm just trying to soak everything in and learn as much as I can, and hopefully the coaches will start trusting me enough to put me out there a little faster than I would've thought," Hughes said.
Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013, knows what Hughes is going through. Patience might be a virtue, but it isn't always easy.
"First thing that comes to your mind is that, 'I'm going to get immediate playing time. They trusted me, they drafted me first round,'" Rhodes said. "So that's what you think, then when you get in it's the total opposite. So you got to wrap your head around that and learn from the guys in front of you and humble yourself and when your time comes you just always have to be prepared."
Hughes provides the Vikings with top-level depth at outside corner behind Rhodes and Trae Waynes. The strides he has made at the nickel, picking up the complicated nature of the position while using his reactive quickness to commit to the route of the player he's covering, earned praise from Zimmer. That's something the Vikings coach doesn't often bestow upon rookie corners.
"He did very well for the first time out," Zimmer said. "We were talking about some of our other corners and how their first game out was a little bit different compared to his. I thought he played really well. It was a good step in the right direction."
Might this carry over into upcoming preseason games and lead to reps with the starting defense? It's possible. Though regardless of which unit Hughes takes the field with and how this situation plays out, one thing is certain: The Vikings see a bright future for the rookie corner, and they're eager to watch what he does next.