College Sports

Signing as NFL free agents gives three local players an opportunity

While none of them had the thrill of hearing their names selected during the NFL Draft this weekend, three former metro-east standouts kept their pro football dreams by signing as free agents.

Former Belleville East and Wisconsin defensive lineman Warren Herring signed with the Atlanta Falcons and former Belleville West and Northwest Missouri State cornerback and safety Travis Manning is leaning toward signing with the Kansas City Chiefs. Wide receiver Jimmie Hunt, who starred at Cahokia and is coming off a solid senior season at Missouri, signed with the Green Bay Packers.

Hunt knows NFL free agents are staring at long odds when competing against veterans and drafted players for roster spots. That matters little now that he knows his destination.

“I’ve always had a positive attitude, seeing the good instead of the bad,” said Hunt, who got the phone call from the Packers on Saturday while at a family gathering in Cahokia. “I’m very excited and I’m ready to get going. It was a great feeling, knowing you put in all that hard work and it actually paid off.”

Hunt had 40 catches for 698 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior at Mizzou last season despite battling knee and shoulder injuries, After catching six passes for 169 yards in the Southeastern Conference championship loss to Alabama, Hunt underwent shoulder surgery Dec. 17 that caused him to miss the Tigers’ 33-17 Citrus Bowl victory over Minnesota.

“I was just battling some injury recovery,” Hunt said. “That played its part, but you’ve got to make do with what you have. I was hearing somewhere between the sixth and seventh round to being undrafted. I was prepared, knowing I had that surgery. That medical history definitely plays a part. But as far as big-play ability, that one spoke for itself.”

The Packers’ background checks included several phone calls with longtime Cahokia High coach Antwyne Golliday, always one of Hunt’s biggest supporters.

Hunt will be trying to crack the Packers’ dynamic offensive roster that includes all-pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers and star receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. The rookie mini-camp opens Thursday in Green Bay and Hunt has a solid game plan in place for his NFL rookie season.

“You go in and get with the veteran guys and pay attention, be eager to learn,” he said. “You put in the hard work and put it in the time, because it’s all about putting in the time and making big plays. Just being focused and having high energy.”

Herring (6-2, 297) attracted the attention of several NFL teams during an impressive pro day in March at Wisconsin. He missed nearly half his senior season with a knee injury (five games over seven weeks), but that didn’t stop Herring from putting in plenty of work and training that has gotten hin to this point.

He reports to Falcons mini-camp on Thursday in Atlanta.

“This is just a blessing because having to go through that injury was a tough thing to take,” Herring said. “It’s just a great opportunity to be a part of this organization. I came a long way, I’ve been working for this for 14 years.”

Herring began his college career as more of a speed-rushing defensive end, but eventually was moved inside to noseguard by the Badgers.

After the season, Herring hoped to get an invitation to the NFL Draft Combine in Indianapolis, but that didn’t happen. However, a strong showing at his Wisconsin pro day combined with the training workouts at St. Vincent’s Sports Performance in Indianapolis helped make a big difference.

“Wisconsin brings a big stage, so it give you an opportunity to perform in front of a lot of scouts,” Herring said. “Things came along well and I was able to help my team win a bowl game and caught the the eyes of some teams as well along the way. My parents always taught me to work for what I’ve got and they instilled that in me, so that’s what I was able to do.

“I’m definitely excited about it and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”

Manning was a three-year starter at defensive back for Northwest Missouri State, helping the team win an NCAA Division II national championship in 2013. In his three years as a starter, which included time at cornerback and safety, Manning had 142 tackles, eight interceptions and 31 pass breakups.

Manning (5-11, 196) graduated from Northwest Missouri State in December and worked out on campus until leaving after Christmas to train at the 4th and Inches Sports Performance facility near Dallas.

“It’s definitely an exciting experience,” Manning said Sunday. “With me being a D-II guy I had to get that extra work in, so I was working out in Dallas until about two weeks from my pro day. I had a pretty good pro day and after that I started getting quiet a few calls. I’m just blessed to be in this position.”

Manning said during the draft he and his agents were talking with the Eagles, Rams and Cowboys. Manning said he expects to finalize things with the Chiefs on Monday.

“I’m just excited for him because he’s such a good kid,” Belleville West coach Cameron Pettus said. “We could tell in high school he was a special athlete. A lot of times I’ve heard it’s better to go the free-agent route instead of being drafted late. He had quiet a few teams interested in him and that’s the one he chose.”

It was a long and winding road from Belleville West to the NFL for Manning, whose six years at Northwest Missouri State included a redshirt year in 2009 and medical redshirt season in 2010. Manning only played football as a freshman and senior at West, originally interested more in basketball and track.

Manning’s agent is Joseph Clayborne, a fellow Belleville West graduate. Among Clayborne’s other clients are former Missouri standouts Markus Golden and Kony Ealy.

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at nsanders@bnd.com or 618-239-2454. Follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders.

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