Bigger teams, bigger games, and bigger stakes are what await senior quarterback Aaron Hughes and his Red Devil teammates – a little “big game” hunting for the Tippecanoe in 2016.
By Greg Billing
Hanging on the wall in Aaron Hughes’ bedroom is a prized possession – the head of an eight-point buck Hughes’ took down last year in southeastern Ohio. Consider the antlers an inspiration to the Tippecanoe Red Devils football team this season. After all, with a move to the Greater Western Ohio Conference the Red Devils are going big-game hunting themselves.
Games against Miami County (and now GWOC) rivals Troy and Piqua highlight a conference schedule loaded with Division II and Division III programs. It’s a new era for Tippecanoe’s perennial power football program. Hughes, the first-year starter at quarterback, is ready to lead them there.
“Everybody is nervous. But I think that’s good,” the 6-foot-1, 172-pound senior said after helping Tipp upend Eaton 42-12 in a scrimmage Friday at Tipp City Park. “You go out with a little chip on your shoulder.”
Hughes shoulders have already helped carry the Red Devils’ baseball team to the Division II regional semifinals this past spring. The staff ace now brings his 83-mph fastball to the football field.
Tipp – coming off a 10-2 season that ended in the Division III regional semifinals – opens this season at Division IV Graham on Friday. Shawnee (D-IV) and Milton-Union (D-V) complete the non-GWOC schedule that ramps up the Red Devils competition from a season ago.
And the Red Devils are doing it with only three starters returning. None are on offense.
Tipp coach Joel Derge said Hughes won the starting quarterback job with his senior leadership and passing accuracy during summer 7-on-7 competitions. Hughes demonstrated some of that poise during Friday’s win against Eaton.
On the Red Devils’ first drive, Tipp faced a third-and-9 from their own 16-yard line. Hughes found senior Quenten Williams for a 27-yard gain.
On the same drive a holding penalty pushed the Red Devils into first-and-20 from the Eaton 27. Hughes hit senior Austin Subler on a screen pass that went for 17 yards.
The 15-play, 85-yard drive ended with the first of six touchdowns for the Red Devils.
In the third quarter, Hughes lofted a pass over a defender’s head – converting another third-and-long – for a 21-yard gain to senior Nyles Anderson. Three plays later he connected with Anderson again, this time for a 39-yard gain to Eaton’s 1-yard line.
Unofficially, Hughes completed 4-of-9 passes for 87 yards.
Hughes missed on a screen pass here and a short pass there. But overall Derge was happy with his first-year quarterback’s progress.
“He did a good job during our 7-on-7s and really threw the ball with about 70 percent accuracy,” Derge said. “You get out here live and get some guys in your face and you just miss sometimes.
“He’s got good throwing mechanics. Other times when we’re working on individual drills like step patterns and targets, that transfers over from baseball for him. We don’t have to spend as much time on those things with him.”
If Hughes needs some throwing advice he knows where to turn. His brother Ben, a 2014 Tipp graduate, was a three-year starter at quarterback. Ben is a red-shirt sophomore pitcher at Eastern Illinois University.
“He’s come to a couple of our scrimmages and tells me what I’ve done right,” Aaron said. “He’s real helpful.”
While Ben has also informed the EIU baseball coaches about his little brother’s abilities, Aaron is still considering all his options. He said Division I and Division II colleges have shown interest in him for both baseball and football.
In addition to his quarterback duties, Hughes is also a leader on the Red Devils’ defense. He’s one of three returning starters with senior safety Cade Rogers and Subler, a senior linebacker. Both Hughes and Rogers had interceptions against Eaton.
Hughes was fifth in tackles for the Red Devils last season with 74 – Rogers led the team with 100 and Subler had a second-best 78 – and had three interceptions. The defense will benefit from their leadership, something Hughes also wants to bring to the offense.
In 2015, Hughes completed five of his six passing attempts for 80 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
“When you pitch you have to be the leader of the baseball team. It’s the same thing for the quarterback,” Hughes said. “Just go out there and lead the team. Set an example.”
Tipp enters this season with a streak of 11 straight playoff appearances. That will be tested against one of Tipp’s toughest schedules.
In 2015, Tipp played six teams in D-IV or higher. The Red Devils played four teams combined in D-II and D-III.
In 2016, Tipp plays seven teams in either D-II or D-III. Three opponents are D-IV or higher.
“Everybody is banking on us to keep the playoff streak alive, to go out and do well in the GWOC our first year. I think we’ll do pretty well,” Hughes said of playing in the American North Division that also includes Butler, Greenville, Piqua, Sidney and Troy. “I think it’s going to be a lot harder than the CBC. We’ll hold our ground. I think every game will be a good game.”
Tipp also plays American South Division teams Fairborn and Trotwood-Madison.
“Going into the GWOC having only three of the 22 starters back is going to be a challenge for us,” Derge said. “But the kids are ready for it. I’ve never dealt with it before. In 2014 we had nine starters on offense that are new. It’s a learning curve all the time. Keep the playbook pretty simple, try to make sure the guys know what’s going on and they can execute it.”
Hughes and his teammates demonstrated their potential Friday against Eaton, scoring on six of their 10 possessions.
“We’ve got a couple running backs who are quick. Our fullback will be good. I think we’ll get around the edge and be gone,” Hughes said. “It’s a whole new line. I think we’ll get better and better as the year goes on. We’re still trying to work on some things. Work out the kinks. I think we’ll be solid this year.
“Most of the teams we’re playing against this year are pretty close like Troy and Vandalia. I think we’ll start some rivalries. … I know the Troy quarterback and some of the other guys from the other schools. There’s a little smack talk for sure. It puts a little more on the line when you’re playing them because of bragging rights.”