Junior college football is characterized by many different stereotypes.
Some might call it a stepping stone. Or a feeder program. Or a rehabilitation center for one’s football career.
Inspired by a recent Netflix show based around East Mississippi Community College, some have started calling it “Last Chance U.”
But Garden City Community College football coach Jeff Sims isn’t fond of that phrase. No, he prefers his program be thought of as “Opportunity USA.”
“You have to admit you have a problem,” said Sims, a former head coach at Mesabi Range Community College and assistant at Minnesota State-Mankato, “and you have to fix whatever brought you here.”
Those problems can take very different shapes, however.
There are three different types of players Sims, the fourth-year coach, sees on the Garden City Broncbusters.
Type 1: The Try Hard. That’s a player who might have the requisite effort and the grades to match but hasn’t put enough on film to earn himself a scholarship.
Type 2: Academic Non-Qualifiers. These fellows might have the talent but lack the educational discipline. As Sims says, “If you were good enough in football but your academics are poor, well bro, you can go out there and score some more touchdowns, but until you pass that English class, you ain’t going nowhere.”
Type 3: A Guy Who Had a Bad Night. That’s the classification for Minnesota Vikings first-round draft pick Mike Hughes.
After helping lead his North Carolina-based New Bern high school to a state championship and having his pick of college as a four-star recruit, Hughes was riding high. But after electing to attend his home-state North Carolina Tar Heels, a trying season set him back.
Hughes was charged with misdemeanor assault for breaking a victim’s nose and knocking them unconscious in an October 2015 altercation. He also faced a sexual assault allegation that same year.
Despite playing in 10 games as a freshman, Hughes left the program the following spring, citing “personal reasons.”
The former high school phenom had momentarily lost sight of his once-promising football future. Before he could deliver an awe-striking season at Central Florida that would make him a first-round pick, Hughes needed a second chance at Opportunity USA.
“If you’re 20 years old, you’ve lived 7,300 days,” Sims told Zone Coverage. “If you live 7,299 of those days perfectly, but one is an awful day, it can scar you for a long, long time.
“Mike messed up at North Carolina,” he continued. “He was a great kid in high school, and he made two mistakes at North Carolina, and then when we researched him, high school coach loved him, college coaches loved him.”
Hughes became a three-phase star for the Garden City Broncbusters, helping lead them to an undefeated season and national title.
“Mike doesn’t talk a lot. he’s pretty humble; he’s pretty quiet.”
As a corner, Hughes won the KJCCC Defensive Player of the Year Award despite only making two interceptions. His ability to shut down his side of the field enabled cornerback Rashaun Croney to make seven interceptions and safety Bryan Blunt to grab eight.
“They were just scared to death of Mike,” said Sims.
As an offensive player, Hughes carried it eight times and made seven catches, scoring four touchdowns on 15 touches, averaging over 12 yards per touch. In the national championship against Arizona West he took a bubble screen 32 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
“Mike doesn’t talk a lot. He’s pretty humble; he’s pretty quiet,” Sims said. “When he walked back [after scoring] he said, ‘Coach, they’ve never seen anybody like us.'”
But the real head-turner for Sims came when he got to see Hughes touch the football as a return man. He returned three kicks for touchdowns in his lone season. In a 16-14 win over Hutchinson Community College — the former home of Cordarrelle Patterson and Alvin Kamara — Hughes returned a punt 83 yards for the game’s first score.
“It’s just so natural,” said the coach of Hughes’ special teams prowess, “and it’s so effortless that it’s kind of like either the other guys aren’t trying, or he’s just that much better than everybody.”
Sims is no stranger to coaching immensely talented football players. He may have instructed more NFL players than most Division I coaches, as a matter of fact.
Hughes is the 50th NFL player Sims coached and the second first-round pick. The other? Jason Pierre-Paul, who Sims coached at Fort Scott Community College.
Sims marvels, though, at Hughes’ natural strength despite not spending much additional time in the weight room. Although Hughes’ 40-yard dash of 4.53 was on the lower end of the combine’s top prospects, Sims believes his former player carries the same speed with or without pads — a functional football quickness, as opposed to straight-line speed.
“This player was just too much value for us not to take where we saw him in the draft.”
After the 2016 season, the head coach helped Hughes get connected at Central Florida, where Sims knew special teams coach Jovan Dewitt from their days together on the Florida Atlantic staff.
According to Sims, Central Florida was one of Hughes’ only opportunities to play Division I. Several reports indicated that Hughes had the chance to play at South Carolina but failed to complete his associate’s degree in time to enroll. Sims does not believe that to be accurate.
“The opportunity at South Carolina was never really extended to be fulfilled,” he said. “Mike didn’t do anything like miss an enrollment. South Carolina never put him in a position where he could go there.”
Things worked out alright at UCF for Hughes. His 49 tackles, four interceptions, 11 passes defended and 34.5 passer rating against was plenty to woo the Vikings, who were willing to overlook any potential red flags.
“He brings versatility,” said general manager Rick Spielman. “And one thing that’s an emphasis here is the ability to play multiple positions. He can play outside, he can play inside, he can play on special teams, he can be a returner. This player was just too much value for us not to take where we saw him in the draft.”
And his rise back to prominence began, of all places, with a squad called the Broncbusters at a community college in Western Kansas.
The Friday morning after the draft, Hughes texted his former coach and heartfelt thank you. And he praised him again at his introductory press conference.
“He’s a guy that doesn’t get enough credit for what he does for guys like me,” Hughes said. “He definitely believes in second chances, and without him none of this is possible.”
“Mike came here,” said Sims, “and he did every single thing right. Mike was a tremendous dude who we never had to punish. We never had to deal with. He worked his tail off. He was a part of a group of players that decided that, you know what, this is my opportunity, I’m going to do the right things, we’re going to get right, we’re going to hold each other accountable.”
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