Over the years, there have been some dynamic two-way stars on the gridiron for the Colorado Buffaloes.
Most notable was Byron “Whizzer” White, who is arguably the greatest CU athlete ever. White was an All-American as a halfback, but also starred on defense and special teams (as well as in baseball and basketball) in the late 1930s.
It’s been nearly 60 years, however, since CU — and most other schools — have had a player star on offense and defense, but that could change this year with the addition of Travis Hunter.
A transfer from Jackson State, Hunter was the No. 1 high school recruit in the country in the class of 2022, listed as a cornerback. He’s also a sensational receiver, and the Buffs plan to use him on both sides of the ball.
“Travis is a unique player and he has great skills,” CU cornerbacks coach Kevin Mathis said. “His competitiveness is out the door. Him being a corner, he’s a different type of corner. He’s really just a football player.”
In the early days of college football, it was standard that players would play on offense and defense. In fact, it wasn’t until an NCAA rule change in 1964, which allowed unlimited substitutions, that coaches could build separate offensive and defensive units.
Since then, only a few special players have been two-way stars, including current CU head coach Deion Sanders (at Florida State), 1997 Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson (Michigan) and former Denver Broncos great Champ Bailey (Georgia).
A true sophomore, Hunter has the same type of ability to excel on both sides of the ball — and might be an even better receiver than cornerback.
“I told Coach Prime this when we was recruiting him (to Jackson State) and I watched him on film,” Mathis said. “I said the difference between Coach Prime, Charles Woodson and all these other guys who played two ways, they were more corners playing receiver. When I look at Travis, I see Travis more as a receiver playing DB.”
Although rated as the No. 1 cornerback in the country coming out of high school, Hunter posted eye-popping numbers on offense. During his final three seasons at Collins Hill (Ga.) High School, he caught 271 passes for 3,949 yards and 48 touchdowns. As a junior, he caught 137 passes for 1,746 yards and 24 touchdowns.
CU has a talented group of receivers even without Hunter. Former South Florida stars Xavier Weaver and Jimmy Horn Jr. have transferred to CU, while two of the best Buffs’ receivers from last year — Montana Lemonious-Craig and Jordyn Tyson — are back. CU has other young talent returning, including Chase Sowell, and six incoming freshmen.
Still, it might be tough to keep Hunter off the field on offense.
“When Travis was coming out (of high school), I was well aware of him,” said CU offensive coordinator Sean Lewis, who was the head coach at Kent State at the time. “Highly regarded as just kind of a great all-around football player.
“I’m excited to have him (on offense) and develop other guys that are around him and the full members of this offensive unit. And that’s our job to pour into them, to challenge Travis and everyone that’s in the room and support them and develop them so that you can become the best version of themselves.”
Defensively, the Buffs are eager to pair Hunter with incoming freshman Cormani McClain, rated the No. 1 cornerback in the 2023 class.
At Jackson State last season, Hunter played in only eight of 13 games but finished with 20 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass breakups. (For perspective, only four players in the Pac-12 had at least 10 pass breakups last season). Hunter also caught 18 passes for 188 yards and four touchdowns. He caught two of those touchdowns in his final game with the Tigers at the Celebration Bowl.
“He was not healthy last year,” Mathis said. “He went through some injuries with his ankle that he had in high school and never really got back to 100%.”
If Hunter is healthy this year, the Buffs could have their most dynamic two-way player in more than six decades. In the past 30 years, several Buffs have played on both sides of the ball, but not regularly and not as stars. Hunter has star potential on both sides.
“His skill level is just out the door, especially when we’re talking about ball skills,” Mathis said. “He’s raw at both positions, receiver and DB, but his competitiveness, his willing to be the best on the field, the want to be the best on the field no matter who’s out there, that’s what makes him a high-level player.
“He’s so competitive, he wants to be the best at what he does, so he studies hard and he really goes out there and gives it his all.”