Life of an underdog: Sean Bunting operates inconspicuously to become prized NFL prospect
Sean Bunting pulled up a chair at the dinner table to eat with his mother, Kim Murphy. It was Monday, March 30, 2015, the day Bunting signed his national letter of intent to Central Michigan University.
As a grayshirt recruit, he didn’t enroll until January 2016, thus missing the entire 2015 football season. While the other members of his class were playing college ball, Bunting was back home in Clinton Township.
Sitting with his food in front of him that evening, his mind was racing. He wasn’t going to play in 2015 due to the grayshirt and had the potential to be given a redshirt in 2016, which could've set him back two years.
“Mama, you know CMU has two good starting corners,” Bunting said, speaking of Amari Coleman and Josh Cox. “They still got two more years, and I’ve never sat the bench.”
“Mr. Competitive, so what are you going to do?” Murphy snapped back at her son.
“Take somebody’s spot,” he said.
Due to Bunting’s proven talent, former coach John Bonamego was unable to redshirt him for the 2016 season, playing him in every game. In 2017, he started all 13 at cornerback – Cox was moved to safety.
Bunting is now a 2019 NFL Draft prospect, and his journey from unknown to known is still developing. It’s the same expedition that began at the age of 4 years old.
"I've played with that mentality my entire life," Bunting said. "I've always been the underdog. It's what drives me, and it won't stop here."
‘He did everything before his time’
The Detroit PAL Youth Football League is for boys 7-14 years old. This is where Bunting’s underdog mentality on the gridiron began to catch fire.
Playing for the Detroit Titans, he took the field as a 4-year-old. Bunting started for the Titans ahead of his fellow teammates, of which all were six, seven and eight years old.
“That was the confidence builder that set the tone for the rest of his life,” Murphy said. “In his mind, it couldn’t get any better than that, but little did he know, it was only the beginning.”
Bunting continued to play football throughout grade school and middle school, but he also picked up on baseball and basketball. He fell in love with all three and spent time participating in travel baseball and AAU basketball.
But a call from coach George Yarberry at Michigan Elite Football helped Bunting make a decision that has paced the rest of his life. He traveled to 17 different camps, including the IMG Academy 7-on-7 national championship, Rivals, Under Armour, Nike, Sound Mind Sound Body and a plethora of camps with college coaches in Michigan and Ohio.
Bunting finished first, second and third in many of the events, but he never got a scholarship offer. People looked right past him, even after proving he belonged with the top high school football players.
‘He didn’t have stars’
Bunting walked into Chippewa Valley High School as a meager 5-foot-9, 140-pound freshman. He began his high school career on the freshman team. The following year, he took the field for the JV squad.
Chippewa Valley coach Scott Merchant watched Bunting join the football team as a freshman. His first opinion was that Bunting had the potential to be a solid high school player, not a future NFL draft pick.
Over time, late-bloomer Bunting developed into a superstar. It was then Merchant knew his cornerback’s future was bright.
“When Sean puts his mind to something, he won’t be denied,” Merchant said.
A growth spurt hit Bunting ensuing his sophomore football season, sending him from short to tall almost immediately. He played as a wide receiver, then transitioned to a jack of all trades as a senior in 2014.
Bunting began to put on weight and show signs of more strength. However, since he played three sports year-round, his opportunity to get in the weight room was limited. Merchant pitched that aspect to interested college teams.
“No one would offer him because they didn’t know him or because he didn’t have any stars, what I call opinions, so once again, he was the underdog, but he never gave up,” Murphy said.
Merchant thought Bunting would end up at Division II Ferris State after former coach Dan Enos resigned from CMU in January 2015. His only Division I chance was gone, and the Bulldogs had an offer with the highest amount of scholarship money on the table.
Even after Merchant advised Bunting to go with Ferris State, he skipped National Signing Day – ultimately ending any opportunities to play at the next level.
One day in March, while Merchant was at his daughter’s soccer game, the high school coach got a phone call from Murphy.
Bunting said he received a roster spot at CMU.
Murphy, with her son by her side, drove up to CMU to meet with Bonamego, who replaced Enos. Bonamego offered Bunting a grayshirt, and he accepted on the spot – finally locking himself in as a Division I prospect.
“I’ve been a head coach for 19 years,” Merchant said, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
The conventional route for a Division I prospect is to start all four years on varsity, set records, pick up 20-some offers, choose a college and take the highway to the NFL.
Bunting’s situation was much different, unconventional to say the least. He considers it the underdog route, and it paid off.
"Everything happens for a reason," Bunting said. "I'm a man of faith, so I've always believed. I knew anything was possible as I prayed and asked for it."
Leaving CMU early
Once Bunting paid his dues by starting just one game in the 2016 season, he took off for Central Michigan the following campaign.
His first interception of his second year was a Nov. 1 pick of Western Michigan quarterback Jon Wassink.
And that was only the beginning.
The following week, Bunting registered two interceptions against Eastern Michigan quarterback Brogan Roback. In each of the next two games, the cornerback stole the ball away through the air once, making it four-straight contests with an interception to end the season.
Four weeks. Five interceptions.
Scouts from the NFL began taking note of the former no-star prospect. That was the moment Bunting knew this dream could turn into reality.
"I was always at the right place at the right time," Bunting said. "That definitely helped me out going into the next year and raised my stock."
Bunting’s junior season rolled around, and the ball usually never went his way, which was a testament to his play.
Opposing quarterbacks rarely threw the football toward Bunting. Instead, they picked fellow NFL draft cornerback prospect Xavier Crawford or attacked other parts of CMU’s defense.
Using his aggressive punch, clean lower body movements and intense physicality, Bunting defended wide receivers and ended with 37 tackles. The year before, he had 49 tackles – proving teams seldom targeted the receivers he covered in the 2018 season.
“He hasn’t given up many plays at all,” Bonamego said during the season of Bunting, who finished with two interceptions. “He’s not getting a lot of looks.”
Bunting said his standout game from his junior 2018 season was against Michigan State due to locking down Felton Davis III on national television.
"I personally think I locked my guy every game," Bunting said. "Michigan State turned a lot of guys heads and made people feel I can do it at the next level."
Sliding up draft boards each week of the season, Bunting had a decision to make after CMU’s 1-11 season, which ended in a 51-13 loss in the finale to Toledo.
He chose to depart from the Chippewas and take his shot at the NFL draft.
Over the course of four years, three of which he played college ball, the now-NFL prospect turned down a Division II offer, went months without a college, took a grayshirt at CMU, missed a season, dominated as a Chippewa and is now about to be selected in the 2019 NFL Draft.
"I always had that dog in me," Bunting said.
Shining at NFL Scouting Combine, Pro Day
“The decision to leave CMU early and pursue his dream of playing in the NFL put him in an underdog situation once again,” Murphy said. “This was a challenge because it was no turning back.”
It’s said that mother knows best, and Murphy was spot on. There was no going back. He locked himself in for the NFL draft and went to work, training at Rep1 Sports in Irvine, California.
Bunting was one of 338 prospects, of which just a handful were cornerbacks, invited to the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis from Feb. 26 to March 4.
He immediately turned heads and made himself some money, as analysts said, by cranking out a 4.42-second 40-yard dash. Meanwhile, back in high school, he registered near a 4.60 time.
"Coming into that, I knew I was going to turn a lot of heads and run a good 40-yard dash," Bunting said. "I knew guys didn't think I was going to run a fast 40, so once I got the time, I knew I shocked the world."
Bunting added 14 bench press reps, 41.5 inches on his vertical jump and 126.0 inches on his broad jump to complete the performance of a lifetime on a new stage.
Following Pro Day on March 14, Bunting was asked about his draft stock. Many NFL draft experts have pinned him as a solidified second round pick. Bunting, however, believes there's no one better at his position in this year's draft.
He has 10 pre-draft interviews and workouts scheduled with NFL teams for this upcoming week.
"I definitely feel like I'm at the top of the boards," Bunting said. "I feel I am the best corner in the draft."