After 3 straight losses, where does Jackson State football and Deion Sanders go from here?

Anthony McDougle
Special to The Clarion Ledger

Everything was in place for the Jackson State football team to return to prominence in the Southwestern Athletic Conference this spring. Or so it seemed.

They school hired Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, and he assembled what he called one of the best coaching staffs in the country. Add that with a slew of transfers and arguably the strongest recruiting class in HBCU history, and the formula seemed set.

However, sometimes those components don’t always equal instant success, and it seems Jackson State is finding that out the hard way.

What started out as a promising transition into the future after starting the season 3-0, now stands at a 3-3 reality, most recently capped by Saturday’s 52-43 loss to Alabama A&M (3-0, 2-0 SWAC) at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.

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It's a painful reminder of how far Coach Prime and the Tigers still have left to go.

“I’m happy that we didn’t give up offensively at all and Quincy (Casey) did a great job,” Coach Sanders said after the loss. “(I'm) certainly not happy with the type of yardage we surrendered defensively, and I don’t know what to say. I think we have phenomenal coaches, but there’s a disconnect in some type of way with the signals going into the field and the field doing what’s been called. It’s frustrating, trust me, it’s frustrating.”

They had already been reminded of that thoroughly in a 34-14 loss to Southern, but that game didn’t hurt their chances of competing for a SWAC East title as it was considered a nonconference game.

But with the loss to Alabama State and this recent setback against the Bulldogs, those division title hopes are now nonexistent. The Tigers now sit at third place in the division, behind those two.

Pressure is a funny thing. It can make diamonds, but it can also burst pipes. In the case of Jackson State, it could be argued the latter is occurring. A team and players that seldom got attention outside of local media is now in the national spotlight each and every week. And what do they have to show for it?

The Tigers have had two games on ESPN’s primary channel. Those two games - home games against Southern and Alabama A&M - have been losses.

So now, they sit in the midst of a three-game losing streak and the momentum the Tigers entered the season with has come to a screeching halt.

“It was smoke and mirrors and guys started believing the smoke,” Coach Prime said. “They got beside themselves. Some of these guys never got that much attention. It’s cameras everywhere, people yelling their names everywhere they go. People giving them stuff. They weren’t built for that.

"Then you’ve got to get on the field and perform and have an expectation. Now they’re expected to win, be professional and do their jobs. That’s a lot of pressure on a team that just came off four wins. It’s not for us because we’ve been there at the highest level, but it is for them. But that’s our expectation of them, and somewhere you’ve got to meet that expectation and we’re not. So that’s a problem that we have to address.”

Sanders could not have been more honest when asked what could be done to remedy the circumstances that have his team in its current predicament. He said a culture change was necessary, and to achieve it, the personnel on the field and sideline will have to change.

Coach Sanders said that goes deeper than passion or mere numbers. He wants to see his players engaged, encouraging one another and celebrating one another’s achievements. He wants them thinking of what they can do to make their fellow teammates better.

He doesn’t want players who succumb to the cameras and the pressure. The cameras, he said, are there solely to provide enhanced exposure for the SWAC and its players.

“I’m watching through the trials and the tribulations,” he said. “I’m sitting up there and  watching on the bench, how you react after a big play. I’m seeing the kickoff team, I know our kicker made a mistake and kicked it out of bounds, and they went on to score, but he came back and had some booming kicks. I loved it. He bounced back.”

Coach Prime said that type of response to adversity will earn a player a check by their name and a spot on his team. He won’t accept anything less, and he won’t have to wait much longer to apply pressure to players not willing to buy in. That’s because in the fall, the rest of his signing class will finally be able to take the field, along with the trasnfers. 

Jackson State University head football coach Deion Sanders, right, and his son, Shedeur Sanders, take a look at the scoreboard during JSU's game against Alabama A&M at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Miss., Saturday, April 10, 2021.

Three of the most notable players in that program-altering class are his sons, Shedeur and Shilo, and Trevonte Rucker. Shedeur Sanders is a four-star quarterback who's already on campus as an early enrollee. Many expect him to take over the reigns of the Jackson State offense in the fall. 

Shilo Sanders is a sophomore defensive back who transferred to the program from South Carolina. He tallied 23 tackles and one pass deflection in the fall for the Gamecocks. Rucker is a four-star wide receiver who originally verbally committed to Florida, on two different occasions, before signing with JSU in February. 

Sanders has always been a keen-eyed, no-nonsense coach. But with that type of top-tier talent incoming and the losses piling up, the first-year coach will undoubtedly begin to magnify every action of each player on the team.