‘Start the trend’: Why a four-star WR spurned the SEC to play for Deion Sanders at an HBCU

David Wilson
·5 min read

When Trevonte Rucker sat down with his mother to propose his bold idea for his recruitment, he wasn’t sure what to expect. He’s a four-star wide receiver and an Under Armour All-American. He had more than two dozen scholarship offers and was such a star at Ocala Vanguard he was able to orally commit to the Florida Gators when he was still a sophomore.

Rucker was still committed to Florida when the early signing period arrived last month, but he went through it without signing a national letter of intent. It was time for him to reassess, and he couldn’t shake his thoughts about Deion Sanders. He told his mother he wanted to play for the legend and break barriers in the process. He told her she wanted to go play for the FCS Jackson State Tigers.

“My momma really wanted me to go there, so it was a blessing,” Rucker said Saturday while he was in Miami for the Florida vs. Georgia All-Star Game. “She had a vision saying I need to go there, but she ain’t never told me that, so when we sat down to talk about it, it just fell right into place.”

He reached out to Sanders and told him he was interested in Jackson State, and Sanders quickly called him back to formally offer him a scholarship. On Jan. 5, he flipped from the Gators to the Tigers, tweeting his announcement with “#BLM” and an emoji of a Black fist. He plans to sign with them on National Signing Day next month.

It will be a momentous occasion for Jackson State and the college football landscape. Rucker, the No. 189 overall player in the 247Sports.com composite rankings for the Class of 2021, will likely become the Tigers’ highest ranked signing ever, edging out incoming four-star quarterback Shedeur Sanders, the coach’s son.

Even more notably, Jackson State is a historically black college. In the past year, high-profile recruits — primarily in college basketball — have started to consider historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) more seriously. The Howard Bison, for example, landed five-star center Makur Maker in the Class of 2020 and Mikey Williams, the No. 2 player in the Class of 2022, put five HBCUs in his top 10 last year.

College football hasn’t yet found its trailblazer. Rucker wants to be one.

“Nobody’s actually doing it,” Rucker said. “Just start the trend and be the first one to do it — it’s a blessing and I’m just trying to open up everybody’s eyes, show everybody what they can do.

“That’s my mind-set: Get there and change the world, make history with Deion.”

With Sanders at the helm, the Tigers are most clearly positioned to make this routine. So far this recruiting cycle, Sanders has signed his four-star son and another top-500 prospect, and landed oral commitments from Rucker, a four-star junior college cornerback and another top-800 player. Jackson State’s recruiting class currently ranks three spots ahead of the Oregon State Beavers’.

Ultimately, playing for an HBCU was only a small part of what drew Rucker to the Tigers. When the Jackson State gambled and hired Sanders as their coach last year, it was with the assumption the draw of playing for a Pro Football Hall of Famer would outweigh his lack of experience. In Rucker’s recruitment, it wound up being the primary draw.

“When he got the call, he was pretty excited,” Vanguard coach Edwin Farmer said. “Whatever Deion said, it lit him up, like turning on your Christmas lights. ... He wants to go out and play for a great football coach, great leader, a leader of all his student athletes in the right direction at Jackson State, at an HBCU. There’s a program out there, Deion is the head coach, Deion has turned the program around and Trevonte is joining to help.”

Rucker was a two-way athlete for the Knights and an electrifying punt returner. As a senior at Vanguard, Rucker ran, pass and threw for touchdowns, logged 23 tackles and an interception, and returned two punts for touchdowns. While most schools wanted Rucker as a wide receiver, the LSU Tigers recruited him as a defensive back, Farmer said, and Rucker felt comfortable putting his future in Sanders’ hands.

Sanders is one of the best two-way players and return specialists in NFL history, so Rucker will get to Jackson, Mississippi, and let Sanders figure out how to use him.

“He’s got the attitude and the ability,” Farmer said. “You don’t really want to compare him to Deion. The way I feel about it, to be honest with you, is that Deion is going to find what side of the ball suits him better.”

Ultimately, Rucker’s circumstances are unique — every recruit’s are — but even a couple years ago an HBCU wouldn’t have had any shot at beating out Southeastern Conference suitors for a player.

Sanders at least has Jackson State in the conversation. A trend always has to start somewhere.

“Deion just told me, ‘Just come make history,’” Rucker said, “so that’s what I’m going to do — make history and learn from the best.”