CLEMSON - What's in a number? For TCU defensive end Jerry Hughes, a career move that may pay seven-figure dividends.
Hughes played running back and receiver in high school. Yet when he arrived at TCU as a freshman in 2005, he claims to have been stunned to find a defensive lineman's number on the jersey in his locker, thinking he was at least going to get a crack at carrying the ball first.
"He said he didn't know he was going to be a defensive end until he showed up and there was a 98 there," coach Gary Patterson said. "I'm not sure - four years ago is a long time - he remembers how we recruited him. But we're glad he's here."
Hughes has the number to keep an eye on today for a Clemson offense searching for answers at left tackle after starter Chris Hairston suffered a sprained MCL a week ago.
Hairston is listed as a game-time decision, but even if the Tigers put him at right tackle opposite Hughes, there remains the matter of someone with a shaky left knee trying to contain an edge-rusher Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said could "run under a table full speed."
Players in perfect health have found it difficult to block Hughes, a 6-foot-3, 257-pound senior from Sugar Land, Texas, who led the nation in sacks last season (15) and has 4.5 this season.
Because he fits the mold for an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, Hughes is considered a likely first-round NFL pick in April's draft, having bypassed this year's draft after getting a late first-round grade from the league's underclassmen advisory committee.
"Any great defensive end is going to attack and attack," Hairston said. "He plays with an outstanding motor, and he's relentless.
"He's really the most talented defensive end I've seen play this year. With the offenses they run in the Mountain West, he's really able to come off the ball and show his moves."
Swinney said Hughes does not have the power of Georgia Tech's Derrick Morgan, who had three sacks in the first half two weeks ago against the Tigers. With that in mind, the Tigers seem poised to give the first crack at right tackle to redshirt sophomore Landon Walker, who started last week against Boston College.
Walker compared Hughes to teammate Ricky Sapp, a quick 6-4, 250-pound end who Walker faces each day in practice.
"It's not like this is the first time we've faced a speed rusher before," Walker said. "The ACC is full of them. But he is a consensus All-American. ... It's not every week you get to go against a consensus All-American."
Especially one who never played defense before college. Hughes is one of the numerous defensive players Patterson has culled and groomed from offensive skill spots, his recruiting strategy to enhance the Horned Frogs' defensive speed. In 2006, six of the team's 11 defensive linemen played running back or receiver in high school.
Hughes was not recruited by either of the state's high-profile programs, Texas or Texas A&M. His top scholarship offers were from Arizona State, Iowa State, SMU and North Texas.
"We knew he was athletic as a tailback, but he wasn't a guy I felt like would be better than just pretty good," Patterson said.
Clemson will find out how good this afternoon.
"The guy can fly and explodes off the ball," Swinney said. "He's lightning fast and can get around you in a hurry. He's the real deal."