By ERIC KEPPELER
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Tyler Hughes made a positive impression right off the bat.
As a slightly built sophomore, he walked into the first day of Tonawanda High School football practice in the summer of 2010. By the time Hughes left the field that day, coach Rob Gross knew he had a keeper.
“He had very good feet and great athletic ability, and we thought he could contribute right away,” Gross said. “He’s a tough guy – you could see that he could take a hit and still gain yards. It was just obvious that he’d be starting for us.”
Hughes is the first to admit there was a learning curve, as a 10th grader playing varsity football — but he understands that the experience has made him much stronger.
“The first year, the game was so fast — it was being played at a different level than I had ever seen, and it was overwhelming,” Hughes said. “Then as you get some games under your belt, it gets easier.”
Now, three years later as a senior, it’s almost impossible to get Hughes off of the field.
He’s the team’s starting running back and one of its starting cornerbacks. He returns punts and kicks, and he even is the holder on PAT attempts.
“I just do whatever Coach needs me to do for the team,” Hughes said. “The game situation dictates what we need.”
On top of all of that, Hughes has emerged as one of the team’s key leaders.
“He’s a natural leader on the field,” Gross said. “He has a great feel for the game because of his experience. As a running back, his vision is a tremendous asset – he sees the field well beyond the point of attack. As a cornerback, he understands running routes and the techniques needed to defend against them.”
Hughes has been a steadying force for the past three seasons. That first season – which also was Gross’ first season as head coach in Tonawanda – was a tough one that resulted in a winless campaign.
The Warriors took a solid step forward last season, going 4-5. The jury is still out on this season, which so far has Tonawanda at 1-4.
“He’s been a leader since the beginning,” Gross said. “The rest of the guys understand that he’s been doing this for awhile. He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do. He knows where we were, and he understands what it took to get where we are.”
Hughes, now all of 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, has carried 88 times this season for 476 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. On defense, he has chipped in 31 tackles and one interception.
“He seems to thrive on a heavy workload and gain momentum as the game goes on,” Gross said. “He wants the ball – he doesn’t mind the contact, and he’s been like that ever since he was a sophomore.”
Hughes, who also plays basketball and baseball for the Warriors, cites hard work during the offseason – particularly in passing leagues and in the weight room.
“You just have to keep working hard so that you’re ready,” Hughes said. “It’s also taken a lot of hard work from Coach, getting the guys in here in the offseason. We’ve all learned a lot – the program’s coming along.”Find the Tonawanda News sports desk on Twitter @tonanewssports.