A physical freak at 6-foot-4 with a 32-inch waist and a nearly 80-inch wing span, Naashon Hughes isn’t often outplayed on the football field.
When he got tripped up by a Temple receiver in bump-and-run coverage last season at Leo Buckley Stadium, the Texas-committed linebacker wasn’t too worried. He knew his guy wasn’t getting the ball.
“Nah, he wasn’t open,” Hughes said.
Laying in wait like a shadow, then-junior defensive back Tyrel Stokes swallowed up Hughes’ man and managed to make a play on the ball. For Stokes, who’s slowly garnering Division I attention, it was just another day at the office.
“I want to make every play, every tackle, every interception, every turnover, just go get the ball so our offense can go score,” Stokes said.
It’s Stokes all-out approach that has Harker Heights head coach Mike Mullins feeling pretty confident in the Knights defense this season.
“He’s just a great instinct football player to the ball,” Mullins said. “The good thing about him is he’s such a versatile kid that can play so many positions back there, and still get to the ball if somebody happens to bust a coverage.”
Returning eight starters and nine players with varsity experience on defense, including two-way lineman Darius James and Hughes, along with nearly the entire secondary, Harker Heights is hoping that experience can carry it back to the promised land — the playoffs.
“There’s so much chemistry with eight returning starters, it’s great,” Stokes said. “Everybody just swarms to the ball. It makes practice more lively, everybody’s screaming, practice is like a game basically.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been some changes to the former District 12-5A’s top returning defense after holding teams to just 279 yards per game last year.
Beginning with a scheme change after former defensive coordinator Keith Muehlstein left to take the same position at Bryan under new head coach Ross Rogers, who previously coached at Heights from 2000-06, the Knights have moved to a more traditional 4-3 setup.
“It’s more physical. (New defensive coordinator Ty Opperman) wants us to be more physical at the line,” Stokes said. “Physically, it’s big, fast, strong — there’s going to be some big hits this year.”
There also have been some position changes, with Hughes and former safety/corner Jalen Crooms both moving to outside linebacker and ex-corners Stokes and Darius Mitchell moving to safety. Returning to man the corner spots are Milik Calip and Samson Gray.
“Me and Crooms have played in the secondary before. And having Tyrel, Sam(son Gray), Milik and Darius in the secondary, and those are all pretty quick cats, so we should be pretty good in the second and third levels,” Hughes said.
With so many “fast cats” roaming the open field, and big bodied lineman including James, 295-pound senior nose guard Nate Leota and Ellison sophomore-transfer Justin Ellis manning the trenches, the Knights defense could have Heights vying for a much-coveted playoff spot.
“For us, it comes a lot from the inside, because we’re preaching it every day. But in the same sense, we have (the leaders) saying the same things to the younger kids, like ‘It’s our time, and it’s time for us to step up,’” Mullins said.
For Stokes, there’s no question where Heights will be come the end of the regular season.
“Anything less than the playoffs is a failure,” Stokes said.