A fresh start with the Buffalo Bills is paying off for linebacker Jerry Hughes.
After failing to find a niche with the Indianapolis Colts, the 2010 first-round draft pick is benefiting from the second chance he received in May, when the Bills acquired him in a trade for linebacker Kelvin Sheppard.
"Sometimes, in this league, that's all you need. You get a second chance, you make the most of that opportunity," coach Doug Marrone said, following practice Sunday. "The change of atmosphere, and knowing that we can find a role to fit him has been very beneficial. And I've seen some good things out of him."
The Bills have been so pleased with Hughes' performance in spring practices that they freed up room by cutting veteran pass-rusher Mark Anderson two weeks ago. That leaves Hughes in prime position to earn significant playing time alongside star pass rusher Mario Williams.
That's just fine with Hughes.
"Now I'm a Buffalo Bill, and I'm here to show everyone that I can play football at this level," he said. "I have expectations, the way that I like to play the game — be out there playing fast and relentless, getting after the quarterback, the ball carrier, whoever that may be."
Hughes has had an opportunity to show that a week into training camp in suburban Rochester by practicing with the starters while filling in for Williams, who has been nursing a sore foot.
At 6-foot-2, 254 pounds, he has terrific speed to give him a quick burst off the edge, and enough size to muscle off blockers to disrupt the run game.
On Friday, those skills were evident on consecutive plays during a team drill. After stopping running back C.J. Spiller in the backfield for a loss, Hughes burst around the edge to collapse the pocket and draw what would have been a holding penalty.
Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is installing a hybrid, multiple-look defensive scheme that utilizes his pass rushers in a variety of ways. That seems to suit Hughes, who has the versatility to play several spots.
"The way Pettine's able to plug calls in, it works well from the guys in the back seven to the guys in the front four," Hughes said. "He's able to kind of highlight everyone's skill and we're able to really just pin our ears back and just go play football."
That's exactly what Hughes was hoping to do with the Colts, but didn't get many opportunities to prove himself. Drafted 31st overall out of TCU, Hughes was expected to follow in the footsteps of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Hughes was a dominant pass rusher in college, finishing his career with 28 1/2 sacks.
Trouble was, he wasn't a great fit in the Colts' 4-3 scheme. With limited playing time, he managed just 21 tackles and one sack in his first two seasons.
"Early on with the career in Indy it was definitely tough being the first-round guy and not getting the opportunity to play those first two seasons," Hughes said. "But I just kind of look at that they really didn't know what they have."
Hughes started to turn his game around last year after the Colts switched to a hybrid 3-4 scheme of their own. He started six games and finished the season with four sacks and 41 tackles — which is why he was surprised when he learned of his trade to Buffalo.
"I was a little bit caught off guard just because we just got done with the offseason workouts, but I looked at it as an opportunity to kind of start over fresh," Hughes said. "Really, I've only had one season of football which was last year so I'm excited how that year ended and I'm excited for this year."
As it turns out, it won't be long for Hughes to face his former team. The Bills open their preseason at Indianapolis this weekend.
The homecoming carries little significance to Hughes.
"It never really felt like home," Hughes said. "So that's why I'm not really too attached to there."
NOTES: Marrone said QB Kevin Kolb could return as early as Monday after missing Sunday's session. Kolb hurt his left knee a day earlier after slipping on a wet rubber mat. ... DE Williams had limited playing time in getting his first action in team drills since complaining of soreness in his left foot last weekend. ... Rookie seventh-round pick DB Duke Williams missed practice after experiencing concussion-like symptoms, Marrone said.
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