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Colorado defensive back Travis Hunter is critical to bowl eligibility

The two-way star may be the Buffaloes’ most significant player on offense and defense


PASADENA, Calif. — You can make the argument that Colorado’s Travis Hunter Jr. is college football’s most electrifying player. You could be talking about him as a receiver, or you could be discussing him as a cornerback.

Each week, it seems he makes at least one play that leaves folks amazed. He did it again Saturday against UCLA with a pair of interceptions that showcased his athleticism and football IQ.

Colorado lost 28-16 but was positioned to win the game in the fourth quarter because of Hunter’s performance.

“Travis is Travis. I keep telling you that. I don’t concern myself with Travis,” coach Deion Sanders said after the game. “Travis is going to bounce back, and I knew he was going to bounce back. You know he’s coming off an injury, and he was taking the offensive side of the ball a little more seriously than he was taking the defensive side.”

While Shedeur Sanders is one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, Hunter might have an even more significant role in Colorado’s quest to make a bowl game because he impacts the game on both sides of the ball.

Colorado defensive back Travis Hunter (left) defends Stanford wide receiver Tiger Bachmeier (right) on Oct. 13 at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colorado.

Jamie Schwaberow/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

In the last 30 years, Champ Bailey, who was a cornerback, wide receiver and returner for Georgia (1996-98); Charles Woodson who was cornerback, returned punts and occasionally played as a wide receiver for Michigan (1995-97); and Chris Gamble, who was cornerback, wide receiver, and kick returner for Ohio State (2000-02) were the best two-way players in college football. Each was a first-round pick, and Bailey and Woodson are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In 1998, Bailey had 52 tackles and three interceptions while catching 47 passes for 744 yards and five touchdowns. Woodson intercepted seven passes and caught 11 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns in the season he won the Heisman Trophy in 1997. He also ran for a touchdown and returned a punt for a touchdown. In 2002, Gamble caught 31 passes for 499 yards while recording 24 tackles, 4 interceptions, and a touchdown.

Hunter, who missed three games with a lacerated liver he sustained in Week 3 against Colorado State, has 29 catches for 353 yards with 2 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.

He had a terrific night Oct. 13 as a receiver but struggled at cornerback. In a 46-43 loss to Stanford — the Cardinal trailed 29-0 at halftime — he caught 13 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He also allowed touchdown passes of 60 and 30 yards.

Afterward, critics suggested that playing both ways hampered Hunter and that he should reduce his contribution to the offense. In 1996, Sanders became the NFL’s first two-way player since Chuck Bednarik in 1960, so he understands how to train and condition the body to do it.

Colorado didn’t play last week, and Hunter used the time to improve the conditioning he lost while he was injured and to study video.

“He didn’t go home. He worked out and trained and got his feet up under him, and he watched film intently,” Sanders said Saturday. “He studied the little things, and he was prepared and ready today, and he gave you a Travis Hunter performance.”

Did he ever.

Hunter’s first interception positioned Colorado to take a double-digit lead in the first quarter, but the Buffaloes settled for a field goal and a 6-0 lead. On the play, Hunter was playing man-to-man, but he saw the slot receiver running a quick out. Hunter abandoned his assignment, read quarterback Ethan Garbers’ eyes, and snatched the ball out of the air as he tumbled to the ground.

“You’ve got to give Travis Hunter credit on that. That was a tremendous play by him. And it wasn’t a disguise,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “They did not disguise coverage at all.

“He’s a special football player and made a tremendous football play, and that is when you just go, “That kid’s really good, so let’s maybe not throw near him.’ ”

Hunter’s second interception was just as nice.

This time, he played zone coverage. He dropped to his spot, and quarterback Collin Schlee thought he could complete a deep out, but Hunter drifted back, leaped high, and intercepted the pass.

Just so you know, he almost intercepted a third pass.

Leading 14-9, UCLA drove to the Colorado 3. On second down, UCLA designed a play where the running back went into the flat, and a receiver ran an out behind him.

Hunter took away the running back, came off his man, and positioned himself to intercept his third pass of the game — one he might have returned for a touchdown — but the pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage.

As the ball hit the turf, Hunter jumped up and down in frustration.

Colorado defensive back Travis Hunter can’t reach a low pass against the UCLA Bruins in the first half at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 28 in Pasadena, California.

Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

On offense, Hunter caught three passes for just seven yards. Shedeur Sanders, sacked seven times and hit 13 other times, spent the game under duress, which is why he averaged just 5 yards per attempt.

Hunter played about 125 of the game’s 136 plays.

The coaching staff discussed limiting Hunter this week to ensure he stayed fresh, but Sanders said he didn’t try to actively manage Hunter’s playing time.

“I tell them when I want him in the game and when I want him now,” Sanders said. “I don’t discriminate.”

Colorado must win at least two of its last four games to get to six wins and bowl eligibility. The Buffs have lost two in a row and four of five.

“We want to win,” Sanders said. “I don’t give a darn about no bowl right now. We want to win.”

And he needs Hunter to play virtually every snap to do it.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is an award-winning journalist who is currently president of JJT Media Group and has covered sports in Dallas-Fort Worth for 31 years.