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Edinboro University & Northwestern Pennsylvania High School Journalism Competition: Third Place (Website)

How a struggling HBCU program became the buzz of the college football world


When talking about college football, many fans think about the legendary programs: Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Miami (Florida), LSU, and so on. Many of these schools are also highly regarded in terms of recruiting high school players. Texas A&M just pulled a legendary recruiting class in 2021, while Texas and Clemson also topped out with top-10 recruiting classes.

But although many schools rebuilt their rosters with incoming young talent, including the Texas A&M Aggies pulling in eight different five-star recruits, with a slew of four-stars to back it up, the focus never really shifted to coach Jimbo Fisher’s bright future with the program. There was little buzz about top recruits such as Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik, or even top-10 recruit, linebacker Harold Perkins, flipping from the Aggies to SEC foe LSU.

No, the darlings of the college football world were the Jackson State Tigers, a small historically Black college/university from Mississippi that captured the awe of the sports world. The hype around this program peaked when top overall recruit in the 2022 class, Collins Hill H.S. cornerback Travis Hunter, flipped from Florida State to the Tigers.

Many questioned Hunter’s decision to attend an FCS program, claiming that the lack of competition would hurt his draft stock. However, others support Hunter, arguing that his commitment would not only lead to a larger focus on HBCU football as a whole, but will attract more high-ranked high school recruits to consider HBCU and FCS programs.

September 21, 2020, marked Jackson State’s rise to prominence with the highly-touted signing of Deion Sanders as their head coach. “Primetime” is regarded as not only one of the best defensive players in NFL history, but was respected (and also disliked) for his flashy style and burning confidence.

Following his retirement from football, Sanders brought along his mindset of greatness into coaching, where he coached as the offensive coordinator for Trinity Christian High School in Cedar Hill, Texas. As soon as Sanders made the jump to Jackson State, the team made a jump in his first season, tying for second in the East division of the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Coach Prime’s second year is where things started to pick up for JSU. 2021 was the year that the program really started to hit their recruiting mark.

Jackson State pulled in the 55th ranked recruiting class in 2021, a higher ranking than touted programs such as Kansas State, UCF, Iowa State, San Diego State, Texas Tech, and BYU. It was originally headlined by wide receiver Quaydarius Davis from Skyline H.S. in Dallas, but Davis’ future remains in question following an assault charge in July, although he was apparently enrolled in fall classes at the time.

Outside of Davis, Sanders managed to get more big commitments from four four-star recruits: cornerback De’Jahn Warren from Lackawanna Community College, defensive lineman KaTron Evans from Baltimore, wide receiver Trevonte Rucker from Ocala, Florida, and quarterback Shedeur Sanders (Deion’s son) from Trinity Christian.

The Tigers also made their mark on the transfer portal, acquiring playmakers on all three sides of the ball.

Wide receivers Malachi Wideman, a Tennessee transfer, and Keith Corbin, a Houston transfer, combined for 103 catches, 1,461 receiving yards, and 19 recieiving touchdowns. Both players became primary targets for Sheduer Sanders, who won SWAC Freshman of the Year for 2021.

The defense took a major step forward with transfers. Florida transfer James Houston was a force for the Tigers, racking up seventy total tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and ten quarterback hits. Georgia Tech transfer Antwan Owens and Missouri transfer Aubrey Miller were key contributors as well. South Carolina transfer and Coach Prime’s other son, Shilo Sanders, totaled 39 tackles with four interceptions.

Florida State transfer Isaiah Bolden tore it up for the special teams with 16 kick returns for 591 return yards and 2 touchdowns.

Jackson State had their best season in a long time, going 11-2 and winning a SWAC Championship. Their losses were to Louisiana-Monroe 12-7 and losing in the last game of the season to South Carolina State 31-10.

Being all seniors, Corbin, Houston, Owens, and Miller will all likely enter the 2022 NFL Draft or graduate from JSU. However, Deion Sanders made sure that this year that the Tigers wouldn’t fall off the map.

Recruiting-wise, the aforementioned Travis Hunter obviously highlights this class. But other top-tier recruits have chose Deion Sanders over other colleges, such as four-star 2022 wide receiver Kevin Coleman out of St. Mary’s High School in St. Louis. Other recruits include cornerback Tayvion Beasley from St. John Bosco in Bellflower, California, wide receiver Joanes Fortlien out of Dr. Phillips in Orlando, and cornerback Keylon Kennedy from Garden City Community College in Kansas.

As for the transfer portal, Coach Sanders looked to bolster the offensive line after the unit struggled in the last game of the season. Louisiana-Monroe transfer Zach Breaux and Utah transfer Simi Moala will help aid that. Shedeur Sanders also picked up more weapons with the additions of former Miami receiver Mark Pope and South Carolina tight end Keveon Mullins.

The defense also added some pieces in the wake of key departures. Florida State transfer Tru Thompson and FIU transfer Jason Mercier will hope to fill in at the defensive line. Following the loss of Aubrey Miller, former Texas A&M linebacker Antonio Doyle comes to aid the team while former Southern Miss safety Michael Pleas looks to add depth to the secondary.

But with Jackson State and Coach Prime’s stock rapid rise, what has been the key to the Tigers’ revival? In fact, it’s a simple answer. The answer is Deion Sanders himself.

When people think of Deion Sanders, they think of not only his incredible on-field production, but they often recall his attitude and demeanor as well. Primetime was one of the game’s most polarizing players in the late 80’s to late 90’s, because Sanders was well aware of his talent and wasn’t afraid to let people know he was that good.

Seeing with how Sanders has changed the culture of not only Jackson State, but the entire retrospect of HBCU football as a whole, it’s not crazy to imagine more big-time recruits going to play at Jackson State. Many of these already committed players have cited that the culture Coach Sanders has brought to the program as the reason they now attend JSU. Sanders has brought his same player mentality to the Tigers program, the commitment to working as hard as possible to be the best team they can be.

College powerhouses like Alabama and Ohio State will remain, amassing big recruiting classes year after year. But don’t be surprised if Deion Sanders and Jackson State start to make their mark in Division-I FCS, and maybe one day the entire college football world.

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