Drew Hughes didn't exactly have college on his mind the first time he made contact with Ball State.
Heck, he had just started high school.
Hughes, now a Nazareth senior, was a wet-behind-the-ears high school freshman when Ball State assistant coach Colin Johnson paid a visit to a 6 a.m. workout in La Grange Park.
"I couldn't tell you that I was thinking about college even if I thought of that," Hughes said with a laugh. "It was crazy. A couple months ago you're in eighth grade and now college coaches are talking to you. It's like, 'holy cow.'"
This year's been pretty crazy, too – but it's ended well for Hughes.
The Nazareth senior defensive end/tight end, who made his verbal commitment to Ball State in May, made it official on Wednesday in signing his letter of intent with the MAC West Division champion Cardinals.
Wednesday through Friday is the early signing period for football. The later signing period starts on Feb. 3 and runs through April 1 for D-I athletes (through Aug. 1 for D-II). Hughes is one of a couple area players signing with MAC schools, Wheaton Warrenville South offensive lineman/long snapper Nick Walker signing with Miami-Ohio.
"It's huge, to make it official," Hughes said. "Your dreams have come to reality, to finally be able to go to college and play football. That's one of my goals in life. This means all the hard work is paying off."
Hughes, though, wasn't so certain that it would happen after his junior year. He wasn't talking to many schools, even after starting for Nazareth's 2019 Class 7A runner-up team.
Ironically, his recruiting started to pick up after quarantine for COVID-19 started. He visited Miami-Ohio a week before Illinois was shut down in March, and a few weeks later they were the first to offer him. Ball State joined in the middle of Hughes' recruiting, after he had picked up 3-4 offers.
"I just loved the coaching staff," Hughes said. "Obviously we couldn't meet in person but they made the best with the Zoom calls. They made it sound like it was a family environment, I talked to players to get reassured. It's a place where I could enjoy being a student and playing football."
Surprisingly, given Hughes' 6-foot-2, 260-pound frame, football wasn't his first sport.
He had played soccer his whole life, and in sixth grade played both soccer and football, but didn't play anything in seventh grade after breaking his leg. Finally, Jim McCarthy, the father of former Nazareth star J.J. McCarthy, convinced Hughes' parents that football was the sport for their son. Hughes played just football in eighth grade, and ever since, much to the delight of Nazareth coach Tim Racki.
"Drew is physically a specimen," Racki said. "He's extremely strong and big, and for his size his athleticism is off the charts. He can run, his agility is fantastic and he is explosive with his hands. He could be a great tight end, but he is also an excellent defensive lineman. He has the speed to play the outside but also the power to play the inside. I believe he'll be on the field at Ball State sooner rather than later because of his versatility."
Hughes has put that versatility to good use already. He played defensive line and tight end as a junior at Nazareth, but could start at offensive line this year, assuming there's a season. His soccer background paid off in 2019, as Hughes kicked for Nazareth the second half of the season after the starting kicker broke his leg.
"Honestly, I could play any position on the field except quarterback. I guess you'd have to run the Wildcat with me," Hughes said. "Ball State has me playing on the D-line now, but honestly where I play tackle or end will depend if they have me put on weight or slim down."
As of right now, Hughes said he plans to play football in the spring at Nazareth. While it may seem like it's been a long seven months since Hughes' verbal commitment, with a number of Nazareth teammates leaving to play out of state and no football this fall, Hughes said "it's kind of flown by."
"I've kept myself busy with workouts and school work," Hughes said. "It's gone by pretty fast. It's crazy to think it's been [almost seven] months and now I'm signing. Before you know it, I'll blink my eye, I'll be on campus."
• Here is a list of local players who can sign their National Letters of Intent with NCAA scholarship football schools starting on Wednesday.
Player (HS), Pos – College
Parker Brown (Wheaton Warrenville South), QB - Indiana Wesleyan
Jaylen Brown (Wheaton Warrenville South), LB - Indiana Wesleyan
Christopher Carstens (Wheaton Academy), RB/LB - Wheaton College
Enrique Cruz (Willowbrook), OL - Syracuse
Trevor Donna (Wheaton Academy), LB - Kenyon College
Tyler Duzanksy (St. Francis), LS - Penn State
Jeremy Gelino (Glenbard South), LB - Eastern Illinois
DiAndre Harris (Montini), CB - Georgetown
Wes Hoeh (Glenbard West), OL - Syracuse
Drew Hughes (Nazareth), DL - Ball State
Chauncey Lee (IC Catholic Prep), DB - Eastern Illinois
Denin Limouris (Glenbard West), TE - Iowa (PWO)
Jalen Moore, Glenbard West), RB - University of St. Thomas
Tommy Rittenhouse (St. Francis), QB – Illinois State
Micah Roberts (Wheaton Warrenville South), LB - Indiana Wesleyan
Jared Samuelson (Wheaton Academy), DL - Indiana Wesleyan
Nick Walker (Wheaton Warrenville South), LS/OL - Miami (Ohio)
Max Wilson (Wheaton Warrenville South), DB - Indiana Wesleyan