After capping its first complete season under coach Travis Burkett with a long-awaited bowl victory, College of the Sequoias' football staff has turned its attention toward moving players on to the next level.
And the first two to make the jump — both local high school products — announced their decisions on the first day of the winter signing period Dec. 15.
Sophomore tight end Jayson Littlejohn (Sierra Pacific High/Hanford) signed his national letter-of-intent with South Florida, while sophomore receiver Bryson Allen (Tulare Union) is headed to Cal Poly.
"It's a good thing for our program," Burkett said. "It says a lot about our players and our staff, and how they develop guys. We don't run away from having high aspirations for our guys."
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Littlejohn chose South Florida after also receiving an offer from Northern Colorado. The Bulls are an NCAA Division I program that competes in the Football Bowl Subdivision and plays in the American Athletic Conference.
"Jayson is the epitome of everything we want at COS," Burkett said. "He's a tremendous person who worked hard to become a diligent student. He invested in his academic opportunities and developed a spark for learning. And athletically, he's the definition of what we want to do here from a development standpoint."
Littlejohn initially attended Fresno City after graduating in 2019 from Sierra Pacific, where he was a football and basketball standout. He caught 12 passes for 148 yards as a receiver for the Rams in 2019 before deciding to transfer to Sequoias.
Littlejohn caught six passes for 50 yards for the Giants in two games during the spring as Sequoias was one of five California community colleges that brought back football after the 2020 championship season was canceled because of safety precautions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Littlejohn committed to switch positions from receiver to tight end as Sequoias began preparations for the 2021 season, and he made the most of the move by catching 37 passes for 417 yards and six touchdowns for a Giants team that went 6-5 and won its first bowl in 30 years. He was recently named first-team All-State by the California Community College Football Coaches' Association.
"He just flourished after committing (to playing tight end) the last six months," Burkett said. "He was always trending up as a football player, but once he decided (tight end) is where his future is, he really started to get good. And he's only going to get bigger, stronger and faster with the Bulls."
Allen, meanwhile, becomes the first of what Burkett hopes will become a pipeline of Sequoias players headed to Cal Poly, an NCAA Division I program that competes in the Football Championship Subdivision and plays in the Big Sky Conference.
The San Luis Obispo-based Cal Poly is the second closest football-playing four-year university to Sequoias after Fresno State.
"COS to Cal Poly is something that needs to happen every year a lot," Burkett said. "This institution and that institution need to be linked together. We need to send our local hometown heros to that university. (Allen committing to Cal Poly) is a really big deal."
Allen signed with Sacramento State after graduating from Tulare Union in 2018. He redshirted for the Hornets in 2018 before deciding to return home.
The 6-3, 190-pound Allen caught 38 passes for 940 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman in 2019 while leading the Giants to a 6-5 record and their first bowl appearance in 10 seasons. He was named a preseason All-American heading into the 2020 championship season that was canceled because of Covid-19.
Allen opted out of playing in the Giants two spring games, but picked up where he left off in 2019 during the fall, catching 43 passes for 728 yards and four touchdowns. Allen delivered 10 catches for 173 yards in Sequoias’ bowl win.
"The sky's the limit for Bryson," Burkett said. "He's going to be a Walter Payton Award (which goes to the FCS Offensive Player of the Year) candidate for them. We're excited to watch the future unfold for him. I hope our bye week is when Cal Poly is at home because I want to go watch him play."
Burkett said he expects at least five -- and possibly as many as 10 -- Giants to move on to the four-year level by the end of the current signing period Jan. 15, or during the spring signing period, which runs Feb. 2 through April 30.
Several Sequoias' players have announced college offers through their social media accounts, including quarterback Nathan Lamb (Tulare Union) from Norfolk State, defensive back Zechariah Nesby (Orange Park, Fla.) from Pikeville and Ottawa, defensive lineman Rigo Lopez (Tulare Western) from Pikeville and offensive lineman Jakob Guzman (Corcoran) from Davenport.
Those players all helped Sequoias end a 30-year bowl victory drought as the Giants rallied from an 11-point third quarter deficit to a 40-39 overtime win over Merced in the Valley Center Bowl on Dec. 2.
"It was an amazing experience for guys who have worked their whole lives to go out and be a champion," Burkett said. "There were so many teachable moments in that game that we will carry forward. The best part was I saw guys genuinely excited for each other. That was encouraging to me."
Sequoias, which had lost seven straight bowls since beating Siskiyous 40-27 in the 1991 Pepsi/Sequoia Bowl, trailed 30-19 with 3:12 remaining in the third quarter after Merced's Ryan Kraft scored on a 17-yard run.
The Giants appeared close to sealing another bowl loss when an eight-play, 75-yard drive down to the Blue Devils' 10-yard line failed to produce points after Lamb was intercepted by Nate Ruiz in the end zone and returned to the Merced 45.
But Sequoias forced and recovered a fumble on the next play, and Lamb atoned for his interception with a 1-yard touchdown run that cut the deficit to 30-27 with 9:39 left in the game.
The Giants defense forced a three-and-out on Merced’s next possession and proceeded to drive 72 yards in 12 plays for the go-ahead score, another 1-yard Lamb touchdown run that gave Sequoias a 33-30 lead with 5:58 to play.
The Blue Devils forced overtime on Agustin Piza's 20-yard field goal with 8 seconds remaining in regulation.
Sequoias opened overtime with a touchdown, scoring on a dramatic 21-yard run by Lamb, who cross-crossed the field and avoided several would-be tacklers in the process.
That capped a big day for Lamb, a Fresno State transfer who passed for 281 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 119 yards and three scores.
"That was a special play," Burkett said. "That play is indicative of his progression. He hasn't played full-time football since the fall of 2018. He's going to go on and help someone win a championship like he did for us in the bowl. That play was big for him and big for us. You never recruit a guy off one play, but put it on top of everything else he's done. And his best is yet to come."
Merced responded with a touchdown, too, as Justin Incaprera scored on a 3-yard run. But the Blue Devils elected to go for two points and the win, only to have All-Valley Conference safety Michael Wessel (Golden West) bat down the conversion pass to secure the victory for Sequoias.
"I haven't asked him if he batted it down on purpose, but all things considered, it was the right decision," Burkett said. "It was a hell of a play."
Now, work begins on preparing for 2022, when Burkett hopes the Giants can take a place among the state's elite football programs.
"We're really excited about how our kids have stepped up to represent the community," Burkett said. "That's a big part of everything we promote here. That's local guys and guys from out of state. The best is yet to come. We have a lot to do to get it where we want it to be, but we're working on that every day."
This article originally appeared on Visalia Times-Delta: After bowl game win, COS football sends two players to Division I