OPINION: Stern: How sustainable is CFB's version of Shohei Ohtani?


Many high school football players reminisce with such happiness because it reminds them of a time when they were young and energized. Most of these star kids played on both sides of the ball -- designated as one-man wrecking crews, who singlehandedly won games. But this typically ends at the college level, where the competition and rigor of training is more challenging. In spite of this reality, Colorado sensation Travis Hunter is the single biggest exception to one of college football's golden rules, and figures to be a game-changer in allowing more student-athletes to play both offense and defense.

Hunter's stats at both wide receiver and cornerback in the Buffaloes' thrilling upset victory over No. 17 TCU last Saturday looked right out of a video game. He recorded three tackles, a pass breakup, plus an interception on defense, and caught 11 passes for 119 yards on offense. His ability to seemingly play at such a high level on both sides makes him look superhuman. But, the bigger question is, how sustainable is this type of workload? At 20 years old, Hunter is an energizer bunny, who's taken advantage of head coach Deion Sanders' strict conditioning program.

But as the number of hits pile up and Hunter unavoidably begins to age, it's easy to believe he'll need to limit his number of reps on one side of the ball. Most likely, the superstar will get less reps at receiver and play most of each game at corner. Top defensive backs that can lock down an opposition's top target are much harder to find than wideouts, and that's where he'll ultimately offer the most value. It'll also be nearly impossible for Hunter to stay healthy playing the entirety of each game in the NFL, where seasons are longer and players are stronger.

Hunter's transcendent talent and skills as a two-way player are perfect for the new era of college sports, where athletes can profit off of their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL). His estimated $1.5 million salary from endorsements tops the earnings of Odell Beckham Jr. and Ja’Marr Chase on their NFL deals. The jaw-dropping on-field performances, paired with marketability off the gridiron and platforms on social media, make Hunter a visible presence in a landscape where chasing financial longevity has become accepted.

With these student-athletes generating revenue, playing at the college level has become more lucrative, and Hunter's been a major beneficiary. Which is why preservation and conservation need to be kept in mind when devising a weekly gameplan. This goes beyond sitting him out in practice. Colorado still has 11 games to play, Hunter won't be NFL eligible until next year, plus he has a full professional career ahead of him, too.

Allowing the tread to fall off the tires immediately would be wasting the ability of someone who's changing the perception of what football players are really capable of. Finding a balance where Hunter can have a handful of meaningful touches on offense each game, and still make the game-changing impact on defense -- where it's much more needed for Colorado -- would be perfect.

Angels two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani was able to defy logic with dazzling performances on the mound and at the plate in MLB. But his situation should be viewed as a cautionary tale. In a contract year, Ohtani suffered a torn UCL in his throwing arm for the second time in his career, and may never be able to be a starting pitcher again. While his monstrous bat keeps him as one of the league's most valuable players, it's easy to wonder what could've been, had Los Angeles used him for a few innings at a time, rather than requiring him to throw 100 pitches as a starting lineup fixture.

More importantly, Ohtani's inopportune arm injury offers a warning about the consequences of overuse, and how it can cost an athlete millions of dollars. In the case of Hunter, football's physical toll could actually shorten his playing career if he continues at his current trajectory. He might seem invincible now, but just give it a few years. Time is the only thing that catches up to everyone, and he needs to keep his long-term future at the forefront of his mind.

If Hunter wants to make an impact on both sides of the ball, it'd behoove him to view his football career as a marathon. A tough proposition for an ex-track star who likely wants his coach to allow him to play every snap. But hopefully he realizes that, in the same way home runs for a hitter are harder to come by than strikeouts for a pitcher, interceptions and pass breakups are more crucial than touchdown catches.

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