Running back Robert Hughes goes out for a pass during a recent Cardinals' practice.
As Robert Hughes wheeled around on a route out of the backfield last week, a throw from quarterback Carson Palmer bore down on him quicker than expected.
With the normal rhythm of the play disrupted, the second-year running back had little choice but to stick his left arm in the air and hope for the best. Like a magnet to a refrigerator, the football stuck to his glove.
Some watching may have chalked up the one-handed catch to luck, as bruising tailbacks known for their blocking skills often have an inverse ability to catch passes, but this was not a rare occurrence to Palmer.
"If you were to take two or three guys with the best hands on the team, he's definitely one of those guys," Palmer
said. "He makes unbelievable catches. … I've been shocked for a guy with his build and power how fluid he is running routes and how well he does adjusting to balls and catching balls."
As Palmer notes, the 5-foot-11, 235-pound Hughes has the look of a stout, powerful running back in that three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mold. Yet it's his versatility which has made Hughes the favorite to claim the Cardinals' fourth running back spot behind Andre Ellington, Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer.
Hughes is listed as a running back, but he also plays fullback and contributes on special teams. Coach Bruce Arians even said he could play small tight end.
"That (flexibility) is what Robert brings," Arians said. "Robert Hughes is an outstanding football player."
Hughes signed with the Bears as an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame in 2011. The Cardinals are his fifth team, which matches his career rushing yardage total (on one carry with the Colts in 2012). He has mostly been relegated to practice squads in the NFL, but has made himself more valuable as he learned to diversify his skill-set.
"That's what you do in this league," Hughes said. "You bounce around a little bit, and you learn to adapt to any situation you're thrown in."
Hughes said it's nice to get the public approval of Arians, whom he first played for when both were in Indianapolis in 2012. Hughes was active in five games that season, mostly playing on special teams, before suffering a season-ending knee injury against the Titans on Dec. 9. He played in one game for the Colts in 2013 and was released on Dec. 17. The Cardinals added him to their practice squad less than a week later and signed him to a futures contract once the season ended.
Hughes is not in the clear yet. He must build on the impressive offseason when the Cards reconvene for training camp in late July, as fellow running backs Jalen Parmele, Zach Bauman and Damien Thigpen also take aim at a roster spot. In his mind, the depth chart is of little importance.
"I have fun when I'm out there on the field, and that's just the main thing I focus on," Hughes said. "You can't worry about the politics behind any of the stuff – making the team, not making the team. You have to go out there and have fun, because when you have fun that's when you play the best."
Palmer was pleasantly surprised watching Hughes excel in the passing game through OTAs and minicamp. With that now in the arsenal, the veteran quarterback is ready to see Hughes in his more natural environment as the pads go on and hitting is allowed at training camp.
"He's 240 pounds and built like a bulldog," Palmer said. "He's going to run through people and run over people."
A series of images capturing key plays during the Cardinals' 2013 season.