On national signing day, the high school star from Georgia spurned Florida State after a two-year commitment in favor of the historically Black college.
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The day before the start of college football’s early signing window, the period in which the nation’s highly rated high school recruits can sign their national letters of intent to play at their colleges of choice, Jackson State Coach Deion Sanders tipped his hand.
“Signing day is tomorrow,” Sanders said. “I’m going on record to tell you guys, we’re going to shock the country.”
Less than 24 hours later, Jackson State lured Travis Hunter, ranked as the class of 2022’s No. 1 recruit by 247Sports.com, pulling him away from Florida State, Sanders’s alma mater, in one of the most significant signings in the modern college football recruiting era.
Hunter, a versatile 6-foot-1 cornerback who had been verbally committed to Florida State for nearly two years, announced Wednesday that he had changed his mind.
“Everybody knows I’m committed to Florida State,” Hunter said in front of a packed room at Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Ga. He picked up a hat stamped with a Georgia Bulldogs logo. Many thought that if Hunter were to flip his commitment, he would choose his home state.
He placed the Georgia hat on his head.
“I like this one. It fits me well,” Hunter said. “But that ain’t who I want to go to.”
He tossed the hat to his right then unzipped his jacket, allowing the words “I believe,” the Tigers’ mantra since Sanders’s arrival, to peek through.
He then firmly pulled a Jackson State cap on his head, indicating his decision to play football at the historically Black college in Mississippi.
Few events on the college football calendar are more important than signing day, when players sign the binding agreements that cover their attendance and provide financial aid, and it usually brings a spectacle of flashy news conferences, pep rallies and curveballs.
Players changing their commitments from one school to another on signing day has become commonplace. Since the N.C.A.A. instituted the early signing period a few years ago, allowing players a couple of days in December to sign their letters of intent ahead of the traditional signing period that starts in February, the recruiting process has accelerated as more of the nation’s elite athletes use those few days to finalize their decisions early.
In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Hunter said he had flipped his commitment to Jackson State because it would allow him to “light the way for others to follow.” He added: “make it a little easier for the next player to recognize that H.B.C.U.s may be everything you want and more.”
More than the on-field talent that Hunter, a five-star prospect, adds to a Jackson State team that had the top defense in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in 2021, his decision sets a precedent that could have a lasting effect on H.B.C.U. recruiting, and is a direct product of Sanders’s impact at Jackson State since his arrival in September 2020.
Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, has rapidly remade a program that was long removed from the days in which it, and other historically Black colleges, were fertile pipelines to the pros.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, H.B.C.U.s were often the only options for Black players to play college football, and those colleges regularly sent elite players to the N.F.L., and the American Football League, the N.F.L.’s challenger at the time.
The Tigers sent nearly 90 players to the pros from the early 1960s to the early 2000s, but, like many H.B.C.U.s, faced with limited resources while competing against Power Five programs with enormous athletic budgets, failed to attract the same level of talent that they once did. Fewer H.B.C.U. players have been drafted to the pros in recent years as a result (none in the 2021 draft), something Sanders vowed to change upon his arrival at Jackson State.
“This could be the great revival, the great renaissance for H.B.C.U.s,” Brandon Huffman, a national recruiting editor for 247Sports, said of Hunter’s commitment. “And I think it all goes back to Deion.”
During his first recruiting cycle with the Tigers in 2020, Sanders pulled off one of the most shocking commitments to that point, flipping the former Georgia pledge De’Jahn Warren, who had been one of the top junior college cornerbacks in the country, on the first day of the early signing period last year.
Sanders had assembled the highest-rated class in the Football Championship Subdivision, the level of Division I where Jackson State plays. The Tigers’ 2020 class featured 19 transfers and 11 of the highest-rated recruits in program history, including his son, Shedeur Sanders, who was a four-star recruit.
“This is one that may change the entire face of how recruiting is done as we know it,” Huffman said in an interview.
Some have speculated that a lucrative financial deal attracted Hunter to Jackson State, where Sanders has tried to help his players profit off their name, image and likeness since the N.C.A.A. instituted the rule change that allowed college athletes to make money off their fame earlier this year. If that was a factor in Hunter’s decision to commit to the Tigers, it could launch an era in which players sign with smaller schools simply for the potential to sign N.I.L. deals.
Huffman said he expected that the move could allow more national brands to seek sponsorship partnerships with players rather than direct affiliations with schools.
“And now I think this is going to open up an even better opportunity for these recruits to have national brands believe in their personal brand,” he said, “rather than the college brand.”