We’re again back to break down the lesser known or brand new players signed to futures contracts by the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 2017 offseason. A year ago, Al-Hajj Shabazz was one of those guys. An afterthought, a name many wouldn’t think was worth talking about. But he wound up making the practice squad, a 53 man roster call-up, playtime on special teams, and a cup of coffee on defense. Any of these players are longshots. But they all have a journey, a story, and character.
Next up is punter A.J. Hughes.
A.J. Hughes/P Virginia Tech – 6’0/2 207
Hughes is the most recent Steeler, signed yesterday after a workout/tryout with the team alongside long snapper Kameron Canaday. Neither name is going to move the needle very much but Hughes has a good shot of at least being in camp with the team, making him – and any other Steeler for the fact they’re on the roster – worth talking about.
Because who knows what happens. He’s a long shot. So was Jordan Berry. Danny Smith has told the story before. Berry came in on a tryout, a guy he had never heard of before, expecting to watch him punt a couple times, be generally unimpressed, and leave.
Instead, Berry showed a cannon for a leg and while raw, had some serious tools to work with. Today, of course, he’s the Steelers’ starting punter and the first long-term option they’ve had since Daniel Sepulevda.
Hughes was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, which, in a completely useless piece of information, is the same hometown of Paul Moss, the first Steeler to score an offensive touchdown in franchise history. I qualify that because the first ever touchdown came from cornerback Martin “Butch” Kottler, who returned an interception 99 yards for a score, still the longest return in regular season history for the Steelers. Never a bad time to reference the 1933 team so I’m running with it.
Ok, back to Hughes. He was a four year starter at Virginia Tech enjoyed a productive, if a bit unsteady, career. His averaged pitched and yawed throughout, a low of 39.9 during his junior year to 44.1 the year prior. By his senior season, he found a middle ground, averaging 42.1 yards per punt and pinning over 32% of them inside the 20, the latter the best mark of his career.
He didn’t get much attention in the pre-draft process but received an invite to the first ever Tropic Bowl in Miami, Florida and was named special teams MVP of the game.
For his efforts, Hughes was signed by the New Orleans Saints following this past year’s draft. Following his release, he was thrown into the tryout circuit, earning Tuesday invites with the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, and the Steelers. The Steelers’ workout came in mid-November and the team apparently liked what they saw, signing him yesterday.
Joining Berry as the only punters on the roster, Hughes will have his work cut out for him. But as it stands, being the only other guy means he’ll have plenty of chances to show off skillset. In training camp and in the second half of preseason games, assuming he can make it that far, will help build up his resume tape to send out to other teams. And be an emergency contact for a team like the Steelers.