Defensive duo: Justin Hughes, Elijah Sullivan ‘work off each other very well’

K-State linebacker, Elijah Sullivan, pumps up the crowd late into the fourth quarter. K-State faced off against West Virginia at Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Nov. 16, 2019. The Mountaineers defeated the Wildcats 20-24. (Dylan Connell | Collegian Media Group)

The Kansas State football defense is led by sixth year linebackers Justin Hughes and Elijah Sullivan who have gone through many things including injuries, growth and coaching change.

Now, the Tucker, Georgia, natives get to end their journey together.

Linebackers coach Steve Stanard said he couldn’t ask for a better situation for his first year at K-State.

“Two guys coming back that have a real strong grasp of what we are doing,” Stanard said. “Along with Elijah, I have been real impressed with Justin, too. He knows what we are doing. He has used his time effectively as far as learning even though he wasn’t on the field.”

Sullivan and Hughes enter this season on different paths.

Sullivan is 23 years old and 6-foot, 215 pounds. He is primed for a strong season after recovering from an injury that he suffered two years ago. Last season, he was awarded defensive MVP in the Liberty Bowl.

Hughes, 24, 6-foot-1-inch and 229 pounds, is still “dusting off some rust” after making a return from an injury he suffered in the spring that caused him to miss last season.

Stanard is impressed with the two veterans. He comes from the same scheme of football as head coach Chris Klieman, defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman and former defensive coach Scottie Hazelton.

“They bring lots of experience to the table — both on and off the field,” Stanard said. “I told them how much I appreciated them and their willingness to be coached by another coach. I think they respect that we have all come from similar trees. It’s not like I am a brand new guy that doesn’t entirely understand the system.”

Since Hughes was on the sideline last season, Sullivan had to play the middle linebacker position which helped him become a complete linebacker — a trait that benefits both of them.

“They work off each other very well,” Klanderman said. “The fact that Elijah [Sullivan] had played mike last year — which is a position where we ask for a lot of communication, a lot of helping others and setting the front — him doing that got him out of his comfort zone is helping him now. It set him out of his comfort zone so he doesn’t have to do that anymore. Justin can rely on him a little bit to help him if there is a confusing picture or something.”

Klanderman said Sullivan has reached into a new level.

“Elijah Sullivan is a different animal now,” Klanderman said. “He is an explosive football player. This is going to be a great, big year for that guy.”

Klanderman said Hughes is a tremendous ball of energy that has a great voice for bringing energy.

“[Justin] is a vocal guy,” Klanderman said. “In terms of helping us get lined up and challenging people. We don’t have a lot of those types of guys. This is what he really brings to us — he really is our biggest cheerleader. He is the one that can bring the juice, and he brings a lot of game experience. That is going to matter when the season starts. The fact that he has been in the fire a little bit is going to be a big deal.”

In the press conference prior to the start of the season, Klanderman said Hughes looked very good in practice.

“You wouldn’t know [that he is recovering from a knee injury],” Klanderman said. “He is back there communicating like he has been like the Justin Hughes of old: running around, changing direction and making plays like he should.”

Hughes showed that in the season opener against Arkansas State by recording six tackles.

Klieman said Sullivan is a very hard worker helping bring leadership to the defense.

“He is a workman,” Klieman said. “He does his job, and you can tell when he is on the field because our defense is just that much faster. There are some plays that you think are going to be a good gain, and then all of a sudden there is [Elijah] to get a tackle for a loss. Or it looks like somebody is open and then [Elijah] can close the ground and get a pass breakup. Both are doing a great job. I think there is a great comfort level for each of them to have their friend, teammate out there that they have known for a long time. They elevate our defense.”