A veritable flood of thoughts ran through Justin Hughes' mind earlier this month when, for the first time in over a year, he stepped back on a football field as a serious participant.


"A bunch of emotions," said Hughes, Kansas State's middle linebacker, who missed last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. "Sadness that I missed last year. I just thought about it all the time that I missed last year.


"Happiness, just being out there with my teammates laughing and playing ball again. Excited."


And that wasn't all. Though Hughes, now a sixth-year senior, was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA, a cloud of uncertainty remained.


The ongoing coronavirus pandemic already wiped out spring practice, and when preseason camp started, there was no guarantee there would be a fall season, either.


"It's a little difficult, but I'm a man of faith and I'm a man of God, and I know that God has a plan for me and my teammates," Hughes said during an Aug. 11 virtual press conference, one day before learning that the Big 12 would indeed play a 10-game schedule this fall. "I just handle (one) day at a time, take it one step at a time."


Then there were the natural concerns about the injury itself.


"Am I going to go out here and tank it and get hurt again?" Hughes said. "Those are emotions I always go through, but my trainers have done a good job helping me mentally as far as going out there and just being able to play.


"Just go out there and do your very best and forget (that) you were ever hurt. Just go out there and play like you're normal, because your knee is fixed and everything is healed."


Before he got hurt toward the end of spring practice in 2019, then first-year head coach Chris Klieman raved about Hughes, not only for his play on the field but also his leadership qualities and his grasp of a new defense.


A rash of injuries at linebacker in 2018 had opened the door for Hughes, who started the last seven games and finished third on the team in tackles with 56, including seven for loss, with two forced fumbles.


Steve Stanard, who took over as linebacker coach when defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton left for Michigan State during the offseason, said the biggest challenge for Hughes so far is regaining his form on the field.


"Justin is very communicative; he understands everything," Stanard said. "As he continues to come back from that knee, the issue for him is probably going to be the movement skills.


"And as long as he understands his angles and puts himself in the right body position, Justin can be an effective player."


Hughes rated his recovery at 96% after a week of practice.


"Just trying to come back from my injury (and) getting healthy again, getting stronger by the day," he said. "It's just starting to feel more normal.


"I know everything is out of whack right now with whether we're going to play or whether we're not going to play, but I can't focus on that. We just have to focus on getting better as a team and individually so we can help the team become better as a unit."


While Hughes continues to improve with each practice, it's an ongoing process.


"I think he's still probably dusting off some rust," Stanard said. "It's been a little while since he played some football. The last time he tackled someone was over a year ago.


"He'll get there. But his mental part is what separates Justin — understanding where he's supposed to be in the communication part of it with the rest of the defense."


So as the Wildcats continue preparations for their Aug. 12 season opener against Arkansas State at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, it's all about repetitions for Hughes.


"We've been through the training process, and we've been through the treatment process, rehab and everything," Hughes said. "We've done everything possible for me to go out there and be successful, so I just have to go out there and play."