This year, he's striking back.
Indianapolis' 2010 first-round draft pick has come to training camp with a stronger body, more knowledge of the defensive system and a new perspective on pro football thanks to the advice from his older teammates.
"They say you have to be a pitcher, not a thrower," Hughes said Monday. "Right now I've got three pitches I'm working on, so I've added depth in my repertoire."
To Indy, pass-rushing is all about swings and misses.
So when the Colts took Hughes with the 31st overall pick last year, they thought they hit a home run with the TCU alum. They expected Hughes to clean up when Pro Bowl bookends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis needed a break, and at the very least, to make a significant impact as a rookie.
It didn't work out that way.
Hughes, relegated primarily to spot duty, finished with only five tackles, one quarterback pressure and no sacks. He didn't start a single game, and, at one point, team vice chairman Bill Polian told radio listeners he should have taken an offensive tackle instead of Hughes in the 2010 draft.
Yet Polian continued to express optimism in Hughes, explaining that it often takes defensive linemen one full season to figure out how to play the pro game.
The numbers illustrate Polian's point.
Freeney didn't win a starting job until midway through his rookie season, yet wound up with a team-record 13 sacks in 2002. Mathis did not start a single game in 2003, his rookie season, and finished with only 3½ sacks. He hasn't recorded fewer than seven sacks in a season since.
But teammates think there was another factor in Hughes' struggles.
"I think he was in a bad situation from the standpoint he had two guys already in front of him that weren't going anywhere," Freeney said. "So he has to kind of fit in where he fits in. That is a real tough situation for him. I just tell him keep grinding because that's just what it is. In football, you've got to keep grinding."
The prodding from Freeney and Mathis changed Hughes' approach and has helped him regain some confidence. He spent the offseason adding muscle and running sprints to come back leaner and faster.
Fans who watch closely will see Hughes going more quickly and forcefully through the Colts' daily drill of running through tackling dummies.
Teammates and fans aren't the only ones who have detected a difference in Hughes.
"He's shown great progress, his strength levels are up," coach Jim Caldwell said. "He shows the ability now to kind of counter his past moves. I think all along last year I kept talking about how guys have to find themselves and see what they do best at this level of competition, and I think he's pretty close to that now."
If Hughes emerges as the pass-rushing threat Indy envisions, it could make a big difference. After re-signing Peyton Manning and upgrading his pass protection, the Colts' top priority has been upgrading the defense's front seven.
They took LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis in the third round of the draft, adding size in the middle. They took a chance on former Chicago defensive tackle Tommie Harris, signing the free agent with the hope he will overcome injuries and still be a disruptive force along the line. They brought in free agent Jamaal Anderson, Atlanta's former No. 1 pick, with the idea he could play inside or outside and perhaps become another pass-rushing option.
They also signed free agent linebacker Ernie Sims, hoping a return to the Tampa 2 will rejuvenate his career. Sims had an appendectomy Sunday night and is expected to miss a couple of weeks, Caldwell said Monday.
But the biggest help might be seeing Hughes throwing his good stuff at offensive tackles.
"He knows what he's doing now," Mathis said. "When you know what you're doing, you can play a little faster."
And, the Colts are hoping Hughes' pitches have a little more heat to them, too.
"I can't tell you what they are. You've got to wait till game day for that," Hughes said, drawing laughter. "But I think I'm stronger and faster off the edge."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press