How Deion Sanders changed Jackson State from 'pickup football' to 'burning desire' to make NFL

The fortunes of the Jackson State football program changed on Sept. 21, 2020. JSU Athletic Director Ashley Robinson officially announced the hiring of Deion Sanders. Sanders, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was taking his talents as a first-time head coach to the SWAC.

On the eve of his two year anniversary with the program, Sanders reflected on the changes he’s seen at Jackson State (3-0, 1-0). It’s fitting that two years under Sanders comes after a dominant 66-24 victory over Grambling State on Saturday. The second game of Sanders’ tenure began with a 33-28 victory over Grambling State, JSU’s first victory over their SWAC rival since Nov. 3, 2012.

“These guys that we have in the locker room now have a burning desire to make it to the next level,” Sanders said. “They take this game seriously. They know this game can rescue generations and give wealth to generations. They’re serious about it, unlike when we first got here.

“There was no seriousness. There was no sense of urgency. There was no desire to win and be dominant whatsoever. Those guys that we brought in here have that. I’m proud of them. Not only am I proud of them, I’m proud of the coaching staff.”

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Sanders and the Tigers have encountered several challenges in his first years as the face of Jackson State. His tenure started with a rocky 4-3 spring football season in 2021. The Tigers’ final two games were canceled; Alcorn State forfeited and the season finale against Prairie View A&M was scratched due to COVID-19 issue within the Jackson State program.

“The first spring I can’t count that as a season,” Sanders said. “I didn’t know them. They didn’t know me. It’s like playing pickup football. We had a bunch of guys in the locker room that probably didn’t know the shape of a football and the nuances of the game. We did what we did.”

The trajectory of the program shifted drastically in the fall with Shedeur Sanders at quarterback. The freshman helped led the Tigers (11-2, 8-0) to their first SWAC championship since 2007 and 11-win season.

Shedeur was the first HBCU player to win the Jerry Rice award for the top freshman in FCS football in December. He went 256-377 passing, completing 68% of his passes, along with 29 touchdowns with six interceptions and 3,056 yards.

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Things continued to get better for “Coach Prime” as five-star recruit Travis Hunter committed to Jackson State less than a week later. Hunter, the 247Sports Composite No. 1 recruit nationally, immediately legitimized the forward momentum Deion brought to the program. The Tigers could be a destination for the nation’s top talent.

Hunter appeared in JSU’s season-opening 59-3 victory over Florida A&M but missed the Southern Heritage Classic along with Saturday’s 22-point victory over Grambling State. Deion said fans will “probably not” see the star freshman on Saturday.

The cornerback’s injury hasn’t affected Jackson State’s defense. The Tigers have allowed two offensive touchdowns in their first three games. However, Sanders still wants more from his team. A sign of how expectations have greatly increased in his first two years as head coach.

“We’re trying our best to put together two halves of consistency,” Sanders said. “The word of the week is consistency and that’s what we want to be.

“We haven’t been able to come up with a great start. (We’re) often having a lackluster performance in the first half.”

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: How Deion Sanders changed Jackson State football in two years