At first glance, Lu-Magia Hearns III might not look like one of the most promising young cornerbacks in college football — but he is.
Listed at 5’10”, 170 pounds — “I’m about 166 right now,” Hearns admits — his frame doesn’t fit the traditional mold of the big defensive back tasked with shutting down towering wide receivers.
While Hearns is clearly athletic — being able to assume the position of a basketball point guard, a track star or a soccer player; on the gridiron, his speed might lead viewers to mistake him as a kick returner perhaps but not a cornerback.
The secret to Hearns’ success, though, is that he is all of those. The freshly turned 19-year-old has done a little bit of everything, both on and off the field, and it has translated into his smart, versatile play style at cornerback.
Hearn’s sports repertoire is truly impressive: In high school, he balanced track and field, basketball and football. Before that, it was baseball and soccer.
“I even played hockey at a young age, right before I started football,” Hearns said, “I’m proud of myself for being a multisport athlete and a multitasker.”
When Hearns hit the football turf, he continued to juggle multiple interests.
“I played quarterback in peewee football, believe it or not,” Hearns said. “And a little bit of receiver.”
At De La Salle High School, one of the top high school football programs in California, Hearns caught passes at WR and returned kickoffs for touchdowns as a kick returner, something he hopes to do at Cal as well.
The cornerback is also on Cal’s depth chart as a punt returner and kick returner this season, though hasn’t yet taken any returns.
One of the only positions Hearns didn’t play growing up? Cornerback.
He didn’t start playing defense until high school. By his junior year, however, Hearns decided that cornerback was the position he wanted to focus on.
“Receivers are a dime a dozen; everybody wants to play receiver and have the ball in their hands,” Hearns said. “I like the thrill of going out and lining up against the best player on offense and trying to lock him down every snap.”
Hearns found his calling at CB, but he came to it late. Perhaps because of this, he was underrecruited coming out of high school. A low three-star, Hearns was the No. 1389 recruit in the country in the class of 2021. Cal was the only power-five offer he received.
When the Bears did come calling, the sophomore from nearby Pittsburg, California, jumped at the chance to play for his hometown team.
“As soon as they shot me an offer I committed the same day. I called my coach and he said you got to wait for Wilcox to call you,” Hearns said. “(Wilcox) asked me, ‘Did you talk to your family?’ I was like ‘F-them, I’m coming.’”
“When he committed to Cal we were actually together,” said Hearns’ cousin, Kamahl Thompson. “It was a good day, we were jumping up and down, yelling, having a good time.”
Just over one year later, Hearns has gone from overlooked to the Bears’ CB1 and one of the Pac-12’s most electric defensive players. Cal took a chance, and Hearns blossomed.
“To come in and play on a big stage like that as a freshman, it shocked everybody else,” Hearns said. “But it was what I came here to do.”
Though Hearns doesn’t compare to his teammates in size, he more than makes up for it with his skill.
Hearns’ biggest teammate, nose guard Ricky Correia, came into his freshman year at 365 pounds, more than double Hearns’ current weight. In practices, Hearns matches up with six Cal wide receivers at 6’3” or taller.
“The first thing people notice is that they call him small,” said Hearns’ father Lu-Magia Hearns.
However, he has not only survived in the college game — he has thrived.
“If they didn’t try to pick on me they’d be dumb not to,” Hearns said. “But just watch the tape. That’s all I have to say.”
Hearns led the Bears last season with 10 pass breakups, a mark that tied him for second in the Pac-12. He won Cal’s most valuable freshman award and earned honorable mention recognition for All Pac-12 Honors and Pac-12 freshman defensive player of the year.
As a cornerback, Hearns continues to do a little bit of everything. Last season he recovered fumbles, made interceptions and recorded 28 tackles.
“He doesn’t let the fact that he’s, what they call in the sports world, vertically challenged, bother him,” Hearns’ father said. “He plays the game bigger than what he is and he doesn’t see it as a limitation.”
Hearns’ versatility has allowed him to overcome obstacles he has faced, a skill he built out of his multiple pursuits growing up.
Watching Hearns play it is noticeable that he’s one of the fastest on the field. Returning kicks and sprinting for your high school track team builds those skills. When he jumps up to contest balls with receivers often a head taller than him, the basketball background is evident.
That’s not to mention what Hearns is praised for perhaps the most: his smarts. He’s a cerebral, intelligent player with an innate feel for the ball.
He’s a clear student of the game, and his success as a student in the classroom seems to have contributed to that. Hearns received multiple Ivy League offers in high school. He continues to thrive at many things, even when the spotlights are off.
“Being the student that he was off of the field was more rewarding than anything,” Hearns’ father said. “I didn’t ever have to worry about him not doing homework.”
Hearns is fluent in Spanish, contributes to his community and is a budding businessman who plans to apply to the Haas School of Business this fall and pursues multiple entrepreneurial side projects.
“I just bought a vending machine,” Hearns said. “Just invested in that to help bring in some revenue. Me and my sister are working on a clothing brand.”
“He wants to be good at everything,” Hearns’ cousin explained. “If there’s something out there to learn, he’s going to learn it to the fullest extent.”
From the start, it’s always been about family for Hearns. His father coached him throughout his early years, even in high school, and still proceeds to guide him — “always in his ear.”
His mother, on the other hand, emphasized the big picture: That there’s more to life than just a ball. She wanted him to be a jack of all trades, he said.
Mission accomplished. Hearns finds success at whatever he does — both on and off the field. The only question is, what comes next.
“Last year was my statement year, and this year I can put a seal on it and set myself up for hopefully an early draft stock,” Hearns said.
“I see Lu (Hearns) in a few years in the NFL,” his cousin Thompson echoed.
Hearns may not look like the typical NFL cornerback. But if he continues to do it all, he may never need to.