It took luck for Jarquez Hunter to get to Auburn football, and the Tigers are lucky to have him

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

If Auburn football had offered Jarquez Hunter a scholarship during his sophomore year of high school, the running back would have shut his recruitment down right then.

He grew up liking the Tigers even though his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, is much closer to Bulldogs and Rebels territory. He visited both Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Tennessee, too.

But as soon as Neshoba Central High coach Patrick Schoolar took him to Auburn, “it was over with.”

“That was just the school he wanted to be at,” Schoolar said.

It’s where he ended up. Hunter signed with Auburn in February and moved in last week. He’s going to have a chance to play a key role in a running back room that is thin behind star Tank Bigsby and senior Shaun Shivers, with senior Devan Barrett (who spent the past two seasons playing cornerback) and Central Michigan transfer Jordon Ingram serving as the only other depth.

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But Hunter needed some luck to get there. He didn’t have a scholarship offer when he left his visit to Auburn two years ago. He didn’t receive one until January of this year. Had it not been for a global pandemic, coaching change and three entries into the transfer portal by Auburn backs, it might not have happened.

Now that it has, though, Schoolar believes the Tigers are the lucky ones.

“I’m not trying to be arrogant, but I don’t think they really understand what they got,” he said. “I think they’re starting to realize now that they may have stole one."

Jarquez Hunter's path to Auburn

Hunter’s numbers are impressive. He’s 5-foot-11 and 197 pounds, making him just slightly smaller than Bigsby. He averaged 223 carries, 1,920 rushing yards (8.6 per attempt) and 25 touchdowns over his final three seasons at Neshoba Central. He was named the Class 5A Mr. Football in November. He ran the 100-yard dash in 11.09 seconds to finish sixth at the state meet in May.

So it’s a little hard to believe that he was so lightly recruited. Hunter was a three-star prospect ranked 706th nationally and 44th among running backs. Ole Miss offered him in 2019, but that was under former coach Matt Luke – Lane Kiffin’s staff didn’t show much interest. Mississippi State didn’t offer until October last year. LSU coaches told him they liked his film, but they never offered.

Hunter’s top schools entering his senior season were Tulane and Memphis, with Virginia and Vanderbilt showing some interest.

COVID-19 had a lot to do with that, Schoolar said. The visits and camps that could have raised Hunter's stock in the eyes of coaches and recruiting services during the crucial summer after his junior year were all cancelled.

That turned out to be a good thing for the Tigers, who weren’t looking too hard at running backs at the time. Shivers, D.J. Williams, Harold Joiner and Mark-Antony Richards were returning. Bigsby was joining. Auburn had another four-star, Armoni Goodwin, committed in the 2021 class.

The need at running back didn’t arise until January, after Williams, Joiner and Richards transferred and Goodwin backed off his commitment to sign with LSU instead. Fortunately for the Tigers, Hunter was still out there waiting for a call.

Auburn still needed to find him, though. That’s where the change from Gus Malzahn to Bryan Harsin worked in Hunter’s favor.

Will Friend, who Harsin hired to be his offensive line coach, had been recruiting the running back for years. Like Hunter, he’s from Philadelphia and played at Neshoba Central. He offered him at Tennessee and tried to again during a brief stint at South Carolina.

Auburn offered Hunter on Jan. 11, just four days after Friend joined Harsin’s staff. The running back didn’t announce his commitment until Feb. 5, but there wasn’t much suspense – three 247Sports analysts entered crystal ball predictions for the Tigers by Jan 12.

“I am excited about this kid,” Auburn running backs coach Cadillac Williams said. “He's an awesome young man, a high character young man. He has tremendous talent. I think the opportunity – like I told him – to come in and play early is there.”

Schoolar believes Hunter will take that opportunity and run with it. The coach could go on for hours telling stories about his former star. About the time he turned a fourth-and-2 carry that was blown up in the backfield into a 40-yard touchdown. Or the time when he helped the Rockets complete a comeback from a 21-point, second-quarter deficit in a home playoff game with a one-handed interception he returned for a touchdown in the final minutes.

Last week, after his first workout at Auburn, Hunter sent a group text to his former teammates at Neshoba Central, telling them to keep working so they can one day get to where he is now.

“Nobody is going to outwork him,” Schoolar said. “I know Tank Bigsby is the No. 1 guy there, and rightfully so, but Tank is going to have to bring it every day.”

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.