Lack of special teams value keeps Charleston Hughes off Riders roster for Touchdown Atlantic

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The Saskatchewan Roughriders are short-handed on their defensive line heading into Touchdown Atlantic but it won’t be future Hall of Famer Charleston Hughes who gets the call to step up in Wolfville on Saturday.

With defensive tackle Garrett Marino suspended and CFL sack leader Pete Robertson out with injury, the Riders have brought rookie DeMarcus Christmas onto the roster and opted to start second-year man Keion Adams at defensive end. That left the 38-year-old Hughes out of the lineup for the third time this season, despite travelling with the team to Halifax.

“It was a tough one but we felt like Keion Adams gave us a little more help on special teams and we’re real thin on specials,” head coach Craig Dickenson told the media following the team’s walk-through on Friday. “I talked to Charleston. He was disappointed he wasn’t playing, obviously, but he knows why we did it and maybe next week he’ll be up.”

One of the greatest pass rushers to ever play in the CFL with 133 sacks to his name, Hughes dominated for two seasons in Regina from 2018 to 2019. He recorded 85 tackles, 31 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and two touchdowns in 34 games over that span, but was not retained by the Riders following the cancelled 2020 season.

Hughes signed with the Toronto Argonauts for the shortened 2021 campaign but only dressed for nine games, posting a career-low 18 tackles and two sacks. He returned to Saskatchewan in free agency, dubbing his previous departure a mistake, but the results since his return have not been much better.

Playing a depth role in a potent Saskatchewan rotation, Hughes has dressed for three of the team’s five games, notching two tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. The 14-year veteran’s lack of special teams value has been a determining factor in his exclusion from the roster this week and last, as the Riders continue to battle being the most injured team in the league.

“We felt like they were similar players in terms of the defensive contribution, but we feel like Keion can play on punt team for us and we need a guy on punt,” Dickenson said of his decision to start Adams over Hughes.

Even if he isn’t on the field, Hughes is still playing an important role on the team’s trek to the East Coast, including mentoring the man starting in his place.

“Charleston’s been in this game for 14 years, he’s also played over 180 games. That knowledge, that experience that he’s had and brings into the room, he sees things from a different angle that I might not see,” Adams said.

“He sees the game at a different pace. It’s much slower for him than it would be for most of us, especially coming from the south up here to the north.”

Hughes’ most important message to Adams has been to avoid thinking too much and instead play a reactionary game with trust in his body. That advice helped Adams notch his first sack of the season last week and there are plenty more nuggets of wisdom to go along with it, especially valuable when playing on the road in an unfamiliar environment.

“The guys, they know he’s been there and done that and he has a way of handling things very well,” Dickenson said. “He’s going to go out and have dinner and he’s going to go enjoy being where he’s at, but he’s also going to come to work at night and come to work in the morning.”

Don’t count Hughes out as an on-field contributor this season either, as the Riders always planned to rest the veteran’s legs early in the season. Necessities elsewhere may keep him on the shelf for now but Hughes will continue chasing sack records when the games matter most.

“We hope to get healthy, get a few more special teams’ bodies back and then hopefully play him on defence,” Dickenson stressed.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.