Linebacker Justin Hughes provides defensive boost against Oklahoma

Then-junior linebacker Justin Hughes tackles then-junior Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill to prevent a first down in Kansas State's 31-12 victory over the Cowboys on Oct. 13 2018 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

Sixth-year senior linebacker Justin Hughes dusted off some rust heading into the season after recovering from a season-ending knee injury in spring practice last year.

Despite the rust, Hughes performed well in his first game back on the field, recording six tackles in K-State’s 35-31 loss to Arkansas State.

“Justin [Hughes] played really well,” K-State defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman said. “I thought he took a lot of pride as he always does in his responsibility and in his run fits. I did not once notice his injury. He is back.”

Although Hughes played well in his return to the field, the team performed sloppily against the Red Wolves. Upset with the result, Hughes and other team leaders want to bring a new energy to the locker room.

“We as leaders and captains have done a great job of saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” Hughes said. “Letting little things slide, letting little mistakes slide — we are going to hold each other accountable. Whether that be leaders to leaders, leaders to young guys. We’re going to do a great job of holding everybody accountable in this program, and we’re going to set a new tone for this program, and it started last week on Sunday.”

Showing his leadership off the field, Hughes made it obvious he wants to continue to improve the team as a whole, not just on Saturday’s. Head coach Chris Klieman said Hughes can improve on the field still, noting a lot of pressure rides on Hughes shoulders.

“[It’s important for Justin] to continue to improve, continue to get more healthy and continue to get his knee stronger,” Klieman said. “Continue to just play the game at football speed that Justin wants to play at. Everybody knows what a terrific player he was pre-injury, and I think there’s a lot of pressure on a young man himself to say, ‘I have to get back to that.’ It takes some time. That’s the thing that’s difficult is that it doesn’t happen overnight.”

No better opportunity for Hughes to improve exists than against one of the top offenses in the country as the Wildcats travel to take on the Sooners this Saturday.

The Sooners’ high-powered offense led by freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler is a big challenge for Hughes and the Wildcats’ defense. Hughes won’t back down from a challenge, and he does not want younger defensive players on K-State’s roster to back down either.

“The stage is never too big for you,” Hughes said. “The play is never too big to be made by you. Go out there, do your assignment. You’re here for a reason and anybody can make a play any given Saturday.”

Hughes’ message to fellow players impacted the defense. Klanderman said he saw the defensive practices elevate this week in preparation for OU.

“[The energy] has been at a new level this week,” Klanderman said. “I am excited to see how it unfolds. [Against a high-powered offense], we want to make [Oklahoma] earn everything they get.”

K-State heads into Saturday as a 27.5-point underdog.

Hughes is tired of hearing the word underdog, although the Wildcats did not prevent that title after losing to Arkansas State. Hughes said he uses that term as more fuel to bring against Oklahoma.

“We are going to go out there and give [Oklahoma] our best shot each and every play, each and every down,” Hughes said. “We are going to go out there and be physically the best that we possibly can.”