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Stepping Into The Batter's Box With Pete Hughes | Oklahoma's Baseball Coach Talks Small Ball, Pitchers, Hitters And Cody Thomas With CCM

After spending the last seven seasons at the helm of the Virginia Tech baseball program, Pete Hughes is about to begin his inaugural season as the skipper for the Oklahoma Sooners. Known for being a guy who can turn programs around, Hughes takes over an Oklahoma squad that has made NCAA Tournament appearances a regular occasion in recent years, even knocking Hughes’ Virginia Tech Hokies from the tournament in the Blacksburg Regional last season.

You know, at this stage of the game I wanted to make sure that I was going to work for a quality guy and a guy like Joe Castiglione. I'm not going to make a move where I'm going to leave a place where I had a lot of job security unless I'm going to work for someone special and that's really what sealed the deal with my decision. -Pete Hughes

Now Huges, who had two forty win seasons at Virginia Tech and won thirty games or more in five of seven seasons, is charged with not turning the Oklahoma program around but rather winning the Big XII and leading them back to the College World Series. It's a task that he's more than eager to take on and ready to get started with. I had the opportunity of visiting with Coach Hughes to get his thoughts on Sooner Baseball, his pitchers, small ball, power hitting and much more.

CCM: Coach, how are you adjusting to the big move so far?

Coach Hughes: "You know it is a big move anytime you're settling into a place and you're raising a family and you're having a successful experience. It becomes a big move, especially in our situation. We have five children so anytime you get seven people involved it becomes that much bigger. But this is as easy a place you can transition to...I promise you that. The people are everything as advertised and the support from the administration is unbelievable. Walking into an athletic department and baseball program that is steeped with tradition makes any transition that much smoother, and actually makes it enjoyable."

CCM: You were obviously familiar with the Oklahoma baseball program because you faced them in the postseason last year, but how much did you know about the university and athletic program before this whole process started?

Coach Hughes: "Honestly, not much. I knew that it was an athletic department with tradition that's unparalleled and I knew that they had the best athletic director in the business. Other than that, you get so locked in on the region of the country that you're recruiting in, and that you're competing against. I didn't know a lot about Oklahoma baseball other than it was a very successful product in college baseball.

You know, at this stage of the game I wanted to make sure that I was going to work for a quality guy and a guy like Joe Castiglione. I'm not going to make a move where I'm going to leave a place where I had a lot of job security unless I'm going to work for someone special and that's really what sealed the deal with my decision."

CCM: You go from ACC baseball to Big XII baseball, two really good conferences, talk about the Big XII in general. What are some of the key matchups you're looking forward to this coming season within this conference?

Coach Hughes: "Its unique when you get into a new job situation because you're trying to get a feel for guys and the only way you're really going to know who you have is when you start competing and you flip that scoreboard on. I've got a fell for who they are a little bit now but the true test of knowing who's in your program is in the heat of battle so I'm going in with a couple of unknowns, I don't know what type of guys I have.

Second of all, I don't know the league. I'm looking forward to it and I've heard nothing but great things. You know, from a far, I've respected the Big 12 tremendously and to be able to coach in it, and coach against teams that have had success is something that I look forward to.

To me, I think it's a pretty well rounded league. You look across the board at the teams in the Big Twelve and they've all had success, depending on the year, and some of them are successful every single year. I look forward to a matchup with Oklahoma State and being involved in Bedlam for the first time. You know, I think its two programs that recruit the right way and I know Josh (Holliday) very well. I competed against him when he was at Georgia Tech and I look forward to that matchup. I look forward to playing Texas and getting involved in that rivalry and coach against arguably the greatest college coach of all time. We have some great young coaches in this league and great people. Talk about people that you meet and get along with, I can't wait to compete against these guys. You look at Baylor, you look at Kansas State and Coach Hill is one of the top coaches in the country. You look at what he does there and he gets the most out of his program as any guy in the country. I don't want to slide anyone but the point I'm trying to make is that you go up and down the league and there's great coaches and programs that have had a lot of success, so I'm looking forward to coaching in this league and getting the lay of the land."

CCM: Schematically, what can we expect to see differently from a Pete Hughes coached team at Oklahoma?

Coach Hughes: "I always coach according to what the guys on my team can give me. Last year, at Virginia Tech, we banged it and weren't playing a whole lot of small ball and I kinda let those guys hit because I thought we were very talented offensively. This year you're looking at a team that we inherit where the two top hitters are gone and four of the nine starters are gone. We may have to play some small ball and manufacture a little bit, you know, I do like our incoming guys. I think some of these freshmen are going to come in and help us out offensively where we can identify who we are in the first three weeks of the season.

One thing I do know is that we're going to be aggressive, I do know that. I don't love small ball a whole lot but I do think it has its purpose, especially if your personnel dictates that, and that may be the case because we are inexperienced.

Then you look at the pitching staff that we inherited and, you know, 44 starts walked out the door, not to mention Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton. That's a lot to be made up for but we don't get caught up in talking about what we lost, we're caught up in the opportunity that has presented itself because we've got some hungry guys who are trying to expand their roles at Oklahoma, particularly on our pitching staff. It's made for a very competitive fall and a very competitive preseason for those guys to make up for those 44 starts that walked out the door."

CCM: You mentioned Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton but you've still got some talent there on the mound. I know you're early in your spring practices but is there any inclination as to who you may be leaning on as starters?

Coach Hughes: "I wish. It's a good problem to have. We're talking about six or seven guys to fill out four or five rotation spots, that speaks to depth in your pitching staff. That gives me a good problem to have honestly. If I had to lean on it right now and give you some names, I would think it would be Jacob Evans, Adam Choplick, and we'll probably look for a freshman, whether its Jake Elliott or Octavio Rodriguez to fill out our rotation. We've got some dependable veteran guys that I'm kind of hesitant to take them out of that bullpen because it's so valuable to have that guy who can put out a fire three or four times a week for you. You know, he's that security blanket. You give him the ball and you know you're going to get strikes and a competitive and productive outing out of him. Ralph Garza comes to mind and Kyle Hayes comes to mind, I'm going back and forth as to whether those guys are going to be valuable commodities out of the bullpen or we're just going to use them once a week with a start. Another kid who should be in that talk is Corey Copping who wasn't really healthy last year but he's got a pretty quick arm."

CCM: You mentioned Adam Choplick, who is a mountain of a guy, how key is it to have a guy that big on the mound throwing heat? Is there any intimidation factor or mental advantage to it?

Coach Hughes: "I think so, and he's left-handed, and he's V-Low. Anytime you have any of those characteristics it poses some intimidation there's no question. Adam is 6-7/6-8 and guys aren't used to seeing the ball come from that release point. That's where the deception and difficulty comes in, not so much the V-Low, all the guys at this level can handle the V-Low, they're not used to seeing it coming out over seven feet. Guys aren't used to focusing on that area when they're picking up a baseball. Just like when you reverse it with submariners. Guys aren't used to seeing the ball coming from the release point way down there so it's out of the ordinary, no question. The thing that separates him from the other big/giant guys on the mound is that he's athletic as heck. He's one our most athletic guys, his vertical leap is the best in our program which really surprised me. I've been more surprised with his athleticism than anything else and I'm looking forward to him having a breakthrough year for us."

CCM: Let's talk about the other side and your team from the plate. You lose a guy like Matt Oberste who has just been stellar throughout his career and you have to replace some power hitting from somewhere, even if you do go small ball you still have to have some guys who can send the ball yard, talk about the candidates to be your clean-up guy.

Coach Hughes: "Our two top home run hitters are gone, Oberste and (Jack) Mayfield. Those two guys had 18 homeruns. I'm a big believer in work ethic and kids getting better, I think (Anthony) Hermelyn, (Hector) Lorenzana, (Kolby) Carpenter and (Hunter) Haley those guys have had a lot of at bats. It takes some at bats to figure out how to be a power guy too, and start elevating baseballs you didn't in the past. I look to see a couple of those guys to provide a little punch for us but honestly we have three freshmen that I think are going to hit in our lineup and bring some power to the lineup. Sheldon Neuse, I think will hit in the middle of our order and I think is gonna hit for power. I believe the same thing with Niko Buentello. You know, it's a lot to ask and it's a heck of a learning curve, especially hitting at this level and in these conferences, but I do believe in these guys and I'm not asking too much or putting too much responsibility or expectations on their shoulders. I just believe in them and I think I can evaluate that and I believe they'll be able to hit for us this year and I do believe they'll be able to provide some power for us. You know, the other guy to throw in the mix there is Austin O'Brien. He's been tremendously impressive since the day he stepped on campus. He's pretty advanced. All three of those guys are super advanced for freshmen. So we're hoping that these guys can limit the adjustment of playing college baseball. I think they're ready mentally to do this thing. We'll find out soon enough. I'm going to throw all three of them in there."

CCM: Well, you know OU is a football school, and one guy that fans have been keeping tabs on is Cody Thomas because of his role on the football team. What are you expecting from him and what is his status with the baseball program?

Coach Hughes: "Cody is hustling around and doing both right now. Give him credit because he's super talented. He's raw but his skill set, specifically his power-tool, if off the charts. We've got to organize his weeks, get him his reps, and put him in a situation when he's playing he's prepared to play and I'm not going to do that until we get to that point with him. I'll give him credit, he hadn't seen live pitching in...I don't months and he came out of the gates day one and got three knocks off a live arm. That'll tell you what kind of athlete he is. He's pretty impressive and he's a great kid, great worker and has a tremendous amount of power. He's a big physical kid too, 6-5/215/ you know, so we're looking forward to watching him grow in both sports here on our campus."

The Sooners start their 2014 season on Friday, February 14th with a three-game home stand against Seton Hall and then follow that up with a two-game/mid-week series against Arkansas Pine Bluff.