Let’s take a rewind to 2017 and venture to my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was a cold November night in the Sooner State, and David was trying to slay Goliath on the gridiron in the Oklahoma 6A-2 Football State Championship. The No. 1 Booker T Washington Hornets were facing the No. 2 Bixby Spartans who were the three-time defending state champions. If Booker T was going to end Bixby’s dynasty they needed some magic, and many thought they could do it with a team led by 5-Star and now-starting Michigan Wolverine safety Dax Hill. However, the person who actually stole the show that night was a young sophomore receiver named JJ Hester.
Hester finished with 5 catches for 153 YDs and 2 TDs, not including another long TD that was called back for offensive holding, and made the game-winning interception on the goal line to secure a 28-21 victory for Booker T. The next Monday at school, he was visited by Lincoln Riley and Urban Meyer.
Here are some highlights of that game, Hester was wearing No. 19.
Fast forward two more years and Hester chose Mizzou over offers from the likes of Ohio State, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, and others. He was the No. 1 recruit in Mizzou’s 2020 class and many were excited about his potential as a 6’3 wideout with great hands and ball skills. However, his freshman year was derailed by a foot injury midway through, and 2021 will likely be his on-field introduction to Tigers fans.
So what could Tigers fans be expecting from the former 4-star that hails from a high school that’s produced the likes of Robert Meachem and Tyler Lockett?
The first thing that immediately jumps off the page about Hester is his size. In a Mizzou receiver room full of smaller, quicker receivers, Hester (at 6’3) and Keke Chism (at 6’5) stand a few inches taller than many of their peers. Hester also has a large wingspan and 36-inch vertical that aid him with his elite ball skills and could help turn him into one of Mizzou’s best red zone threats this year.
He’s not the fastest player on the field with a 4.65 40-yard dash, but he compensates for that with his size, and that provides a different challenge to defensive backs than guys like Mookie Cooper or Tauskie Dove might.
Hester’s biggest knock coming out of high school was his weight. Upon arriving on campus at barely 180 lbs, Hester was seen as a guy that needed to put on a significant amount of weight before he could contribute for an SEC team, and he’s done just that. Currently, he is listed at 202 lbs on the Mizzou website, a 22 lb increase in just one year.
With that added weight and impressive height, Hester meets many of the measurables that are desired from a taller red zone target, and his skill set fits right into that mold, too.
Beyond just the impressive measurables, when you watch Hester’s high school tape you see his ball skills and elite hands on full display. Look no further than this one-handed grab against Shawnee High School his senior year for an example of this.
And there’s plenty more where that came from as well.
Another telling sign about his ability to get his hands on the ball was his defensive play at safety. He intercepted 6 passes, and many of those were extremely difficult plays like diving on the 1-yard line to seal the state championship or going up and wrestling to come down with it from the receiver as he did in his junior year highlights.
But beyond just his ball skills, what makes Hester’s potential so exciting is his nose for the end zone and the big play. In his high school career, he averaged a touchdown every five catches and 28.5 yards per catch his senior year. From those numbers and his tape, it’s clear that he has a knack for getting open, and if you combine that with elite ball skills and plus-size at the receiver spot, it makes sense why he found the end zone at a frequent clip; something the 2020 Tigers receivers struggled with mightily.
However, with all of Hester’s upside, there is still one area he needs to work on: high-pointing the football. In high school, he rarely high-pointed the ball to come down with it, but instead trusted his hands and his body to do most of the work for him. I’m sure this is something wide receivers coach Bush Hamdan and Coach Drinkwitz have worked on improving with him since arriving in Columbia, but from high school, it appeared to be his main technical flaw.
All in all, Hester may have been lost in the shuffle after some high-end recruiting by Drink recently, but there was a reason this guy was the No. 1 player in Mizzou’s 2020 class. His size, ball skills, and nose for the end zone all make him a different type of receiver than many of those in the wide receiver room for the Tigers, and he could be the key to opening up the red zone passing attack that was so glaringly missing from the Tiger offense last season.