When Chicago native Robert Hughes chose the University of Notre Dame over instate front runner Illinois, it appeared the the stars were lined up perfectly for a productive career in South Bend. The prep school All-American, who rushed for over 3,700 yards and 41 touchdowns in two seasons at Hubbard High School, joined fellow All-American Armando Allen in the same class. It looked like a perfect combination of slashing speed in Allen and bruising power in Hughes.
Hughes was stepping into a backfield that was anything but set in stone. Penciled in at tailback were seniors Travis Thomas and Junior Jabbie, with sophomore James Aldridge already listed below Hughes on the depth chart before the season started. Asaph Schwapp and Luke Schmidt were the fullbacks. Not necessarily the backfield of dreams to Irish fans.
While not earth shattering, Hughes had a productive freshman season, leading the squad in average yards per rush at 5.5 and finishing second in rushing touchdowns with four. Early in the season he was used primarily in short yardage situations, but he emerged in the final two games exploding for 246 yards on 35 carries and two touchdowns.
It was in these last two games that Hughes was used in his true capacity and it gave Irish fans a look at what was expected in the future. Somehow that never came to be. Somewhere along the line, Hughes' train got derailed.
In mid-October 2007, Hughes' brother Earl was shot and killed in Chicago and, although then-coach Charlie Weis gave Hughes an indefinite leave of absence, Hughes was back on the field without missing a game, calling it the best distraction to the situation.
Coming off the solid finish in 2007, Hughes got 36 carries in Notre Dame's first two games of 2008, but he would go seven straight games without seeing double figures in carries. This was a time when it seemed that Weis totally abandoned the running game. Every week it seemed the Irish would get in trouble early and throw the script out the window.
At every press conference we would hear about a better rushing attack and by the third possession on Saturday, it would be bombs away with Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate. Hughes finished his sophomore season with a career-high 112 carries for 382 yards.
By 2009, Armando Allen had established himself as the starting tailback and James Aldridge was moved to fullback. Newcomers Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood had Irish fans talking about a rushing attack again. To make matters worse, Hughes was suspended for the first half of the Nevada game, but after Aldridge was hurt in the opener, Hughes stepped in at fullback and had the best game of his career, rushing 24 times for 131 yards and a touchdown later that season against Washington State.
In the past, when the question has been brought up about Hughes not being the No. 1 ball carrier, his reply has been, "Whatever the team needs, I'm willing to do anything."
That type of attitude is why Irish fans break into a chorus of Huuuuuuughesssss every time he touches the ball. It was prevalent even in the Bronx when Hughes carried nine times for 39 yards and a touchdown, but Robert Hughes saved his most crucial moment until his last regular season game, scoring a pivotal touchdown against the USC Trojans.
In a career that has had some standout moments sandwiched between so many games with minimal touches, Robert Hughes has always held his head high and said the right things. It's possible that Hughes will land in the NFL as an undrafted free agent. There is still a strong demand for punishing backs in the league and there are other football options as well.
Regardless of what happens, Hughes will walk away from Notre Dame with a degree in sociology and the knowledge that even through adversity, he finished what he started and he finished strong.