By Rick Cleveland
Deion Sanders promised all who would listen Tuesday he was about to shock the country. Then, on national signing day, he delivered.
Sanders signed Travis Hunter, the Collins Hill (Ga.) High cornerback/wide receiver, ranked by many the nation’s top high school football recruit. Ironically, Sanders flipped Hunter, a five-star recruit, from Florida State, Sanders’ alma mater, to whom Hunter had been committed for nearly two years.
“I got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play for one of the greats,” Hunter told an Atlanta television station. “I got a chance to make a change in history.”
Hunter, in a statement after he signed, said he chose Jackson State to help Historically Black Colleges and Universities like Jackson State regain their football prowess of old, specifically citing Mississippians Jerry Rice and Walter Payton who chose to play at HBCUs.
“I am making this decision so that I can light the way for others to follow, make it a little easier for the next player to recognize that HBCUs may be everything you want and more: an exciting college experience, a vital community, and a life-changing place to play football,” he tweeted.
He certainly made by far the most shocking news in all of football Wednesday. Jackson State stole the biggest, boldest signing day headlines from the Notre Dames, Alabamas, LSUs, USCs and Michigans of the world. Many were calling Hunter’s flip to Jackson State “a game-changer.”
“I do think this is a game-changer,” Reggie Bush, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Southern Cal, told Bruce Feldman of The Athletic. “This speaks to who Deion Sanders is. He is one of the rare guys who transcends all age groups and genres, college or NFL. Everybody loves and respects Prime. He just has such an infectious personality. People listen to him and believe him because he backs it up. I think this could really be the start of something.”
Clearly, Sanders already had started something, turning the JSU football program around with just one recruiting class and an influx of transfers. The Tigers, 11-1, won the SWAC championship and will play South Carolina State in Atlanta Saturday in the Celebration Bowl.
My take: We need to wait a while before calling Hunter’s surprise decision a game-changer. We’ll have to see how many other highly rated recruits follow his lead. It could be more of a head-scratcher than a game-changer. Time will tell.
So, you might ask, how good is this Travis Hunter kid?
National recruiting experts all have him rated one of the top two or three recruits of the Class of 2022. He’s the nation’s top-rated cornerback. He also is one of the nation’s best wide receiver prospects. He led Collins Hill of Sewanee, Ga., to a 15-0 record and Georgia Class 7A state championship.
You may recall that Mississippi’s Greenville Christian — who made history this year themselves — played Collins Hill its closest game of the season back in September.
So, how good is Hunter?
“He’s an elite athlete,” Greenville Christian coach Jon Reed McClendon said. “He’s explosive, fast-twitch, very fast and very quick with great change of direction. He has fluid and graceful movements. He’s what you think of when you say someone runs like a deer.”
And here’s the deal: Hunter might have had his least productive game against Greenville Christian.
“We really did a good job on him, so I didn’t get to see much of his play-making ability in person,” McClendon said. “But on film, he makes special plays. In my opinion, at this point, he’s a better wide receiver than corner, but he’s still really good at both.”
“He’s not super physical,” McClendon answered. “That’s the one weakness that I think stands out.”
People used to say the same about Deion Sanders, surely one of the greatest corners in history of the sport.
“He’s very much in the mold of Deion Sanders, a two-way guy who is always a threat to score when the ball is in his hands,” McClendon said. “I do think he needs to get stronger and become a more physical player, a better tackler.”
Something similar was once said about the guy now known as Coach Prime. He’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I asked McClendon if Hunter had covered Greenville Christian’s superb wide receiver Chris Bell, who signed with Louisville Wednesday and who was the best high school football player I saw this past season.
“Yes sir, he did,” McClendon said. “Chris outplayed him that night.”
The numbers would appear to bear that out. Bell, a big, physical receiver in the mold of A.J. Brown, caught five passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns.
Trust me, that’s no huge knock on Hunter. Chris Bell will do that to a lot of people.
This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.