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Which Hughes will the Bills see this year: Jerry — or Gary?

Defensive end Jerry Hughes is the team's high-paid player. Gary's the one who thinks nothing of throwing punches at an opposing player he feels cheapshotted him or said something that crawled under his skin.

When he erupts into a fit of rage that makes yellow flags fly, Jerry Hughes momentarily ceases to exist.

He doesn't merely take on a different personality from the one who, off the field, can be disarming and even utterly charming. He assumes a whole new identity, at least to those who know the Buffalo Bills' defensive end best.

Say goodbye to Jerry. Say hello to Gary. Of course, you might consider doing so from a safe distance.

Gary's the one who thinks nothing of throwing punches at an opposing player he feels cheapshotted him or held him once too often or said something that crawled under his skin. Gary's the one who will let loose with an expletive-laced tirade on an official who has made what he believes is a terrible call or non-call, regardless of whether he's involved in the play.

Gary will sometimes allow his emotions to cause him to veer out of control. He will sometimes put his team at risk of being hit with a 15-yard penalty and sometimes do the same with his own paycheck by accumulating fines.

"His name's Gary when he gets mad, not Jerry," says Preston Brown, who volunteers himself as the authority on Hughes' alter ego, with a smile. "Everybody knows, 'Oh, there's Gary.' He definitely turns into a whole other person. And when the words come out of his mouth, you're like, 'Whoa!' (Otherwise) he's so mellow. He'll go hang out with the kids.

"It's like a totally different person."

The challenge is making sure the right guy shows up enough times to allow Hughes, who turns 30 Monday and is facing his most critical season, to live up to being the Bills' highest-paid player.

'Cuss me out instead'

Brown is entering his first season as a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, but for the past four years he was Hughes' teammate on the Bills. They're still close friends who regularly text each other.

When they played together, Brown was among those who made an effort to try to keep Gary in check.

"I mean, I love that fire," Brown says, "but I'd rather him cuss me out instead of cussing the ref out. That's why I'd always try to go find him and (say), 'Yell at me! Don't worry about them.' The refs are going to call what they call, so you've got to find a way to move on.

"You've got to find a way to turn it off and then turn it back on, because in between plays, guys are still saying something to you. You want to say something back, but you've got to find a way to say, 'All right, I'll see him next play, I'll see him later.' You can't just go after players."

Hughes' volatility was somewhat easy to overlook at one time thanks to back-to-back 10-sacks seasons in 2013, the year he joined the Bills in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts, and 2014. He was seen as being fiery, in a way that enhanced his performance, rather than a walking keg of dynamite capable of doing more harm than good to his own team. That production also earned Hughes a five-year, $45-million contract in 2015. Hughes has a cap hit of $10.4 million this season.

Things are a bit different now. Hughes' sack count has dropped significantly, with five in '15, six in 2016 and four last season. That makes Gary's handiwork harder to ignore.

In '16, Hughes drew eight accepted penalties. Two were for unnecessary roughness (one for head-butting a Bengals offensive lineman), one was for a facemask, and one was for roughing the passer. Also that season, Hughes was caught on video head-butting a Dolphins assistant coach during a sideline fight.

After becoming the Bills' coach last year, Sean McDermott, who places a high premium on discipline from his players, addressed Hughes' temper with the defensive end. And not just once.

Hughes proceeded to pick up six accepted penalties in 2017. Two were for unsportsmanlike conduct and two were for roughing the passer.

He seemingly thrives on his adversarial relationship with game officials. He was fined $22,050 for abusive language to an official against Miami in November 2014 and $23,152 for verbally abusing a referee against the New York Giants in October 2015. It seemed only fitting, after the controversial replay reversal of Kelvin Benjamin's touchdown catch in last season's loss at New England, that it was Hughes, while walking to the dressing room after the game, who yelled: "Somebody in Boston got the refs on the payroll." Except, of course, it was the refs in Foxborough, Mass., who gave Benjamin a TD. The call was changed at league headquarters in New York.

Keeping 'inner Hulk' in

Hughes still hears the warnings from McDermott, as well as defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, to do a better job of keeping himself under control. How well the message is being received is debatable.

It was only four days into this summer's training camp at St. John Fisher College that Hughes found himself in a skirmish with offensive tackle Jordan Mills. The scuffle ended almost as fast as it began, with the two joking about it with reporters afterward, but it served as a reminder that Hughes still has some work to do to cut down on the risk of drawing major penalties.

"I focus on it tremendously," Hughes says. "I focus on really keeping that alter ego, that inner Hulk, in, knowing when to unleash it and when to not. So that way you don't want to be hurtful toward the team late in games, fourth quarter, two-minute drives, things like that.

"You've got to be really cautious to understand the game and the situation so you're not hurting the team."

McDermott, Frazier and Brown aren't the only ones who have done their share to keep Hughes' edge from going over the edge. Len Vanden Bos, the Bills' chaplain, also has counseled Hughes since joining the team last year.

"It's the little things," Vanden Bos says. "On game day I really try to stay out of the way, but one of the things I do is work behind the bench a little bit, just encouraging guys. I'll get them water, I'll get them a towel, I'll pat them on the back for a good play. But sometimes, because of the relationship I have with certain players, I feel like just a short word of encouragement, eye contact. Sometimes, perhaps a little bit of eye contact with somebody who's not a coach can maybe give them a little bit of a reset on perspective that might help a little bit.

"Jerry is, like we all are, a work in progress. His heart and his sincerity can make a contribution to our team. ... Jerry's real; his passion is real. There's a fine line, but we thrive on his passion."

Jerry Hughes could benefit from fewer double teams. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

Reducing double-teams

The Bills like Hughes' skill, too. For the most part, they think his slumping sack total is due in part to the absence of a high-impact pass-rusher on the other side of the line the past two seasons to reduce double-team blocking Hughes has faced.

The Bills hope to have resolved that by signing former Washington end Trent Murphy, whose nine-sack season in 2016 encourages them that he can make a strong comeback from the major knee surgery that sidelined him last season. In addition, they think Murphy's arrival will help serve as motivation for Shaq Lawson, a disappointment since the Bills made him a first-round draft pick in '16. So far, the signs are positive.

"With the addition of Trent and then Shaq coming on the way he is, it should take some of the attention away from Jerry, we think, so we'll see," Frazier said. "He’s done a great job this offseason preparing to have the best season of his career. I think he’s on pace. He’s doing well."

Entering his ninth NFL season and working with new position coach Bill Teerlinck, who was an assistant defensive line coach last year, and new assistant D-line coach Aaron Whitecotton, an administrative assistant with the Bills in 2017, Hughes has incorporated new moves into his repertoire. But his greatest weapon remains his quickness off the snap.

"That's still my fastball," Hughes says.

To help provide the stamina necessary for his high-energy, sideline-to-line style of play, 6-foot-2, 260-pound Hughes made some changes to his diet. It came at the behest of his new coaches, after they compared him with a sports car.

"They said, 'You don't put regular fuel in a sports car,' so when they brought that example up this offseason, it just went off like a lightbulb," Hughes says. He's eating more vegetables and focusing on "good carbs," while also consuming grass-fed beef, bison, turkey and chicken.

'Iron sharpens iron'

A steady diet of facing 6-5, 320-pound offensive tackle Dion Dawkins in practice has, Hughes believes, done plenty to help hone his skills.

"It's great for me, because he's a competitor," Hughes says. "There are not too many guys who are as quick and as agile as Dion playing that tackle spot. So it certainly keeps me on my toes and really allows me to kind of work harder during practice, which I love.

"Both of us were able to kind of come out here and just — iron sharpens iron. We're going to bring our A game because we understand that we both want to be great."

So do a pair of younger defensive linemen: Eddie Yarbrough, a reserve end for the Bills, and Joey Mbu, a tackle for the Green Bay Packers. They have something else in common: They pattern much of what they do as players after Hughes.

"He's such a leader and a competitor that if he gets a new pair of socks, I'm trying to get a new pair of socks," Yarbrough says. "If he gets a new pair of cleats, I'm getting a new pair of cleats. He's that kind of leader and that passionate about football. And you can see it in the way he plays and the way he conducts himself.

"If I can get a speck of that in my game, I'll be all the better for it, so I'll follow that dude in any battle anywhere, any time that he plays."

Mbu has worked out with Hughes the past two offseasons with other NFL players in Houston. Like Hughes, Mbu grew up in Texas and has admired Hughes since he was a star defensive end at TCU.

"Some people are good at football, but don't work hard," Mbu says. "But Jerry's at the gym early, getting miles in before we start to work out. I actually started running laps before we worked out just to kind of emulate what he was doing."

The Bills are expecting Jerry Hughes to increae his sack totals (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

Learning 'game within the game'

Hughes and Mbu talk a great deal about the intricacies of defensive line play. Mbu began applying what he learned last season, when he was with the Colts, although there was one game where being technically sound didn't matter: the Dec. 10 blizzard game at New Era Field.

"That game was crazy. There was no technique. Everybody was just knee-high in snow," Mbu recalls with a laugh. "But one of the things (Hughes) taught me is, if I'm playing nose, don't look at the back heel of a center. Look at the hands to see how they are before every snap and analyze that. Some people grip the ball hard just before they snap it, some people lift the ball up a little bit. You start to pick up tendencies as you're playing the game or you watch on film.

"It's the game within the game that we talk about."

Finding those little edges has been something Hughes has done for most of his eight NFL seasons, which began when the Colts made him a first-round draft pick in 2010.

Finding a balance between playing with an edge and going over the edge is something he admittedly has yet to master.

"It comes with being a football player," Hughes says. "You kind of got to have it to play this kind of gladiator-type sport. Certainly understanding when to unleash it in between the whistles and when to kind of pull it in once the whistles have (sounded) ...”

His voice trails off. Old habits are hard to break.

Brown still expresses concern for his former teammate and friend. He has been down a similar path, although for Brown, the adjustments came early.

"My second year, I was doing that a lot, just going after people for no reason, getting flags that I don't need to get," Brown says. "I worked out of that. But it's just hard, because you feel like you're trying your manhood and everybody's so pumped up and all the adrenaline and sometimes you get out of hand.

"But Jerry, hopefully, he'll get a sack AFTER he does it."

AFTER he transforms from Jerry to Gary.

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