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Jackson State’s Travis Hunter expects to play homecoming game against Campbell

Five-star recruit has missed the last five games due to injury

JACKSON, Miss. — The pass seemed destined to land in the scout team receiver’s hands for a touchdown.

Jackson State University cornerback Travis Hunter Jr. made sure it didn’t.

Hunter, leaping high, deflected the ball with his right hand and nearly made a juggling interception during practice Wednesday.

“I almost had it,” he said, laughing.

Hunter’s teammates and coaches are so used to him making spectacular plays it didn’t even draw an attaboy. That’s OK, because Hunter, the first five-star recruit to sign with an FCS team since ESPN started its rankings in 2006, is simply happy to be on the field again.

“That type of [expletive] you just don’t see every day,” secondary coach Kevin Mathis said. “He’s just a supernatural freak.”

Defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said, “That’s just who he is.”

Hunter, the No. 2-ranked player on the ESPN 300 recruiting list, showed his talent in Jackson State’s spring game with two interceptions, two touchdown catches and a 25-yard reverse. Then he had offseason surgery on his right ankle to repair a nagging injury from high school.

Hunter played in the season opener, a 59-3 blowout win over Florida A&M University, deflecting three passes and anchoring the secondary. He aggravated the injury, forcing him to miss the last five games, but expects to play in Jackson State’s homecoming game against Campbell on Saturday. 

The Tigers have been conservative in bringing him back. Coach Deion Sanders has said he didn’t want Hunter playing until he could show every facet of his exquisite skill set. 

Last week, in a 48-8 win over Bethune-Cookman University, Hunter was a game-time decision. He worked out hard before the game, going through a variety of drills that stressed his ankle, but Sanders and Mathis wanted him to wait one more week to make sure Hunter is close to 100%.

About two minutes into the first quarter, Sanders spoke to Hunter on the bench and told him he wasn’t playing.

As Hunter walked off the field, Sanders approached him again and put his right arm around Hunter’s neck. They shared another brief conversation before Hunter jogged into the locker room.

In a video posted to his YouTube channel Monday, Hunter said, “First game back with the team, man, it was a great experience … I would have thought I was going to play, but coach had other plans. He said next week would be my first game back. You know, he needs me at 110%, not at 100%. He wants me to make sure I’m safe.”

Sanders shared similar sentiments on Instagram.

“Travis prepared &went into the game thinking he was going to play,” Sanders said in an Instagram post. “He will be a Great football player but his character is even Greater.”

It seems fitting that Hunter would make his return on homecoming. After all, he attended Jackson State’s homecoming as a high school senior, and his experience is among the reasons he ultimately flipped his commitment from Florida State to Jackson State.

More than 300 recruits are expected to attend Saturday’s game against Campbell.

“You gotta understand this is where the whole Travis Hunter thing started last year,” Sanders said. “We’re going to catch somebody looking at us, and when they look back two times you know they want you.”

Hunter has practiced this week while continuing to receive treatment. He also watched film in Mathis’ office with his right foot in a bucket of ice.

Now it’s just a matter of finding a rhythm. It starts in practice.

“He looked pretty good in practice,” Thurman said. “He knows he’s talented, but he doesn’t act like a prima donna. He’s willing to work to match his talent.

“There are a lot of talented players across America, but he puts work in.”

Hunter was born to play cornerback, Thurman said. At 6 feet, 1 inch and 190 pounds, he has a sinewy body with long arms. He plays with outstanding technique, has the instincts of a more experienced player and has the speed to make up for any technical mistakes.

More importantly, according to the coaching staff, Hunter plays with no fear.

“He has a natural gift for playing cornerback the way Ed Reed had a natural gift for playing safety,” Thurman said. “He had great instincts for the ball. Travis loves the one-on-one battles. 

“The great ones love being one-on-one. If you don’t love one-on-one, then don’t go out there on the corner. If you scared, get off the corner and go play safety.”

Jean-Jacques Taylor, a native of Dallas, is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL for 25 years and is president of JJT Media Group.