They say that hard work shows character, some roll up their sleeves while others don't show up at all. Fresno State football has created a legacy of hard work and dedication to make the people of the Valley and beyond proud. No one embodies this mentality better than senior team captain Juju Hughes.
The Hanford native found his love for football at a young age, but realized how much his talent could make an impact on the sport in high school.
Hughes, a 2016 Hanford High graduate, departed the Bullpups after winning back-to-back Central Section titles, winning a CIF Division-IV-AA state title and compiling a 26-2 record over his junior and senior seasons.
If you ever find yourself at a Fresno State football practice, it is certain that Hughes will be the last one off the practice field.
"We have standards set here with the program and I try to lead by example," Hughes said. "We have had back-to-back successful seasons at Fresno State and that is the standard. Bulldog football is here to stay. That's why I stay after practice. I also want to encourage my teammates to take care of business in the weight room and in the classroom. We want to set high standards in all aspects."
It is easy to say something or to only follow through for a short amount of time, but Hughes continues to bring a blue-collar work ethic to practice week after week, season after season.
"Juju is an extremely hard worker. Since I met him, he's wanted to be the best version of himself day in and day out," said fellow senior Frank Delena. "He is my roommate and he does whatever he can do to get an edge, always coming home late after putting in extra work. I'm blessed to be a senior with him and go out with him. He's someone that I want on my team not only in football but in life, because of his work ethic and dedication in whatever he does."
Never being satisfied with where is he at, Hughes continues to work tirelessly to improve.
"He gets better with every rep. If he gets beat on a play, he wants to know what he did wrong to make the adjustment for the next play," added Delena. "He watches more film than anyone I've ever met. When the opposing team lines up, he know what play its going to be. It's impressive. Not many players can do that, but it's because he puts the work in. He wants to be great."
Fresno State defensive backs coach J.D. Williams, a first-round NFL selection in 1990 by the Buffalo Bills, spoke to the leadership and experience that Hughes provides for the secondary. At the beginning of the 2019 season, Coach Williams stressed the importance of Hughes leading his younger teammates.
"He has some younger defensive backs with him out there", said Williams. "He's teaching them. He's teaching them how to practice, how to work hard and how to do their jobs. He's teaching them how to be players."
Hughes bring a lot of experience to a young team, he has played in 46 straight games with 28 consecutive starts which marks a team-high. One player that has looked up to Hughes since he joined the Bulldogs is sophomore defensive back Wylan Free.
"When I first came into the program, he helped me adapt to my position and feel comfortable," Free explained. "A lot of people on the team look up to Juju. I look up to him. He brings positivity to the team. He makes sure he does the right things on and off the field. He is not only a vocal leader for the defense, he also leads by example."
Hughes' hard work, staying late after practice, extra weight sessions and self-run film reviews don't go unnoticed by the younger Bulldogs around him.
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"Juju pushes everyone to the limit," Free said. "He's always the last player off the field, and he always tries to get some of the guys to stay after with him. He tries to encourage his teammates to develop the same work ethic that he has. He stays in the weight room to get extra reps, he watches film on his own time and he studies other positions on defense to help the other guys out as well."
As a true freshman, Hughes played in all 12 games. He played primarily on special teams before his undeniable work ethic earned him playing time in the secondary to finish his first season with the Bulldogs.
He began to establish a name for himself during his sophomore season, helping the Bulldogs to a West Division title and a place in the 2017 Mountain West Championship game. Hughes started all 14 games during his second season. He earned his first nod from the conference receiving MW Defensive Player of the Week. He was named an All-Mountain West Honorable Mention selection after finishing the season with 71 total tackles.
After falling in the MW title game a season earlier, Hughes was hungry to get back on the field his junior season. He started all 14 games at strong safety, contributing to a defense that was ranked with the nation's best, establishing a new standard for Bulldog defense. He proved to be a ball hawk, chalking four interceptions for a total of 65 return yards to tie for the most in the MW. Three of those interceptions came during conference play, helping lead Fresno State to its second consecutive West Division title.
Hughes would see redemption as the Bulldogs hoisted up the 2018 Mountain West Championship trophy, after defeating Boise State 19-16 in the snow, in overtime in a game that Hughes or the Red Wave will never forget. He finished his junior campaign being named a MW Second-Team selection.
With back-to-back trips to the conference championship game under his belt and a young team behind him, Hughes is hungrier than ever to make sure his 'last ride' is a memorable one.
Prior to the start of the 2019 season, Hughes was one of three Bulldogs selected as a member of the All-MW Preseason Team. He was also named to the watch list for 25th annual Chuck Bednarik Award which annually recognizes the collegiate defensive player of the year.
Hughes is proud of his Valley roots and puts a lot of emphasis on giving back to the town of Hanford.
"It's a really big deal for me and I don't take it lightly," Hughes said. "It means a lot to me to be in this position representing Hanford because I know there a lot of kids that are looking up to me. I know it's a big deal for me, the kids younger than me and the town of Hanford in general."
Coach Tedford recognizes how important it is for Fresno State to keep local players like Hughes, and how much of an impact they can make not only on the field but off the field too.
"For a Valley kid to come to Fresno State and be really successful, that's special," Tedford said. "He is going to graduate this semester. He's done really well in the classroom, graduating our players is what's most important. He's done his job on and off the field to be a great role model for kids around the Valley."
Hughes will leave behind a legacy of hard work and the pursuit of excellence as he graduates from Fresno State in December with his bachelor's degree in communications.
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