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.