JACKSON, Miss. — The “Jackson 5” drum majors of The Sonic Boom of the South inched closer through the side entrance of the Lee E. Williams Athletic and Assembly Center. One drum major gave the signal to the snare drummer to roll off—roughly two four-second series of drum rolls connected with a thunderous note from the bass drums—in preparation for the world-class marching band to play.
As band members marched in playing the notes and sounds of The Temptations “Get Ready” inside the AAC, several police motorcades followed. With sirens going off, blue lights flashing and a sea of socially-distanced fans standing on their feet shaking their blue and white pompoms, a black Cadillac Escalade came through the entrance gate and was parked next to the stage. The moment that JSU fans had long awaited was finally happening.
"Deion 'Coach Prime' Sanders," Jackson State athletic director Ashley Robinson said in September as he welcomed Sanders to the podium as the football program’s 21st head coach.
Sanders had been bobbing his head in rhythm to the sounds of the band just before Robinson’s introduction. He stood up from his seat to take the podium, dressed in pinstripe pants, a blue blazer and a red face mask with the JSU logo, which was designed by the late, legendary coach W.C. Gorden.
“First and foremost, God led me to Jackson State,” Sanders said. That’s what I can truly and honestly say. Just sitting on that stage and looking my people in the eye and saying and proclaiming what I plan on doing with this program.
“These kids need the playing field leveled and I cannot wait for this opportunity. If you give us the resources, we’re going to prove there is a highway that takes you from Jackson State all the way to the NFL.”
Sanders did not officially start at JSU until Dec. 1 due to his prior coaching obligations at Trinity Christian (Texas) School. However, when he walked through the doors of the JSU Walter Payton Recreation and Wellness Center for his first official press conference dressed in his red blazer, blue “I Believe” shirt and his gold whistle, it was the start of Prime’s personality and vision resurrecting the Tigers’ program.
Jackson State football, which kicks off its 2021 spring season on Sunday, has not earned a winning percentage over .500 since its 2013 season or had a player picked in the NFL draft since 2008, under former head coach Rick Comegy.
“I will not answer any questions unless you address me, ‘Coach Prime,'” Sanders said jokingly to the media. “If your dream is not to play on Sunday, you’re in the wrong place. We’re going after game-changers.”
Sanders found a home and began putting action behind his words of leveling the playing field for HBCUs in landing the highest-rated recruiting class and marking the first time an FCS program recruiting class ranked in the top 100, according to JSU.
Aside from recruiting, the last five months for Sanders have been centered on building his coaching staff, shooting commercials, acclimating him and his sons (Shedeur and Shilo Sanders) to the HBCU culture, talking about the impact, problems and legacy of the SWAC on media platforms and marking his footprint in the Jackson community.
“The playing field [for HBCUs] is horrible,” Sanders said during the SWAC’s Media Days. “It’s unacceptable. It causes a kid not to dream. The Devil is a liar. There is no way that’s going to happen under my watch. They deserve better.
“The people in the city of Jackson and surrounding cities have been wonderful. I’ve seen the compassion and picked up a few meals because the people have been so good to me. It’s been above and beyond all expectations.”
Sanders's coaching staff has extensive football experience ranging from the high school, college and NFL. Michael Pollock and Jason Phillips will serve as co-offensive coordinators and Dennis Thurman is tabbed as defensive coordinator. His staff is rounded out by Mike Markuson (offensive line), Kevin Mathis (defensive backs), Jeff Weeks (defensive line), Gary Harrell (running backs), Alan Richard (special teams) and Andre Hart (linebackers). Sanders retained T.C. Taylor (tight ends) and Otis Riddley (director of player personnel) from the previous coaching staff.
In between Sanders's staff being assembled, JSU players returned to campus for the first time in January and began their eight-week training period in preparation to compete in the unique spring season, per SWAC policy. The league decided to postpone fall 2020 sports to the spring due to COVID-19.
The Tigers, like several other FCS programs, are slated to play roughly 16 or more games in a 10-month span. One SWAC school and JSU’s biggest in-state rival, Alcorn State, opted out of the spring season due to COVID-19 issues in the program. Per league rules, Alcorn's conference games will be considered no-contest forfeitures, with wins being awarded to the Braves’ opponents.
The Braves are coached by Fred McNair, the brother of the late NFL quarterback and Alcorn State alum Steve McNair. Alcorn has dominated the SWAC and has won four of the last six conference championships. Jackson State was originally slated to play Alcorn in its regular season finale on April 17.
With Alcorn opting out, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference decided to cancel its spring season due to COVID-19 concerns. Six of the MEAC’s nine football-playing institutions opted out while several schools—Delaware State, Howard and South Carolina State—will still play. However, with no declared MEAC champion for the spring season, the Celebration Bowl will not take place.
On Jan. 27, Jackson State football activities were paused due to COVID-19 and contact tracing within the team. After the pause, Sanders held two scrimmages to see where his team stood going into the first game. The biggest question surrounding the program has been who would be starting under center at quarterback.
Having three coaches in the last six seasons has played a role in the Tigers' lack of solid production at QB. However, it has not always had that reputation.
From 2006 to 2013, under Comegy, the Tigers recorded one losing season (2009), won their last SWAC title (2007) and made four appearances in the SWAC championship game (2007, 2008, 2012, 2013).
A combined 21–40 record in the last six seasons speaks to the issues the program has dealt with when it comes to signal-callers and its struggles offensively. In 2019, the Tigers finished the season in the bottom half of the league in every major statistical offensive and defensive category except for rushing yards per game (fourth in the conference) and passing yards allowed (second).
In both scrimmages this month, freshman quarterback Shedeur Sanders took most of the snaps and was the first quarterback on the field. However, both Shedeur and Shilo are ineligible to play in the spring because the two played in the fall at Trinity Christian and South Carolina, respectively.
Like Sanders's sons, other players in the 2021 recruiting class will not be eligible to play in the spring and will await the fall season. On Wednesday, however, Sanders narrowed his quarterback options to sophomore Jalon Jones and freshman Quincy Casey—two players from the 2019 team.
Rashad Milligan of the Clarion Ledger reported Sanders and Pollock were not exceptionally pleased with Jones and Casey's performance throwing the football in a scrimmage.
"They came to the game, they showed up to the game," Sanders said in response to the paper about positive moments from the second scrimmage, adding he felt the two could improve on everything.
Jones, a dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school and University of Florida transfer, has more experience than Casey. He threw for 708 yards on 41 for 78 passing, eight touchdowns and three interceptions in his four final games in 2019.
"I really wish he'd [Jones] use his athleticism a little more, to be honest," Pollock told the Clarion Ledger. "He's one of the fastest players on the team and I don't think, right now, he is just cutting loose and letting his speed and his athleticism guide his game.
"I think he's getting a better understanding of the run game and checks like that at the line, but we've got to take it to the next level so we can throw the football and take full command of the offense."
Casey, who earned time in the second half of the second scrimmage, threw for 91 yards in three games in 2019 before being redshirted. In a week that has been filled with bizarre weather of snow and ice—causing Jackson residents to lose water and electricity—fans will have to wait until moments before the first snap of the game to see who will lead the Tigers' offense.
What is for sure is this: Despite the aftermath of the unusual winter weather, when Jackson State hosts Edward Waters College on Sunday at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, it will be the first time in 455 days that JSU will play a football game. The Tigers' last game came in a 41–6 loss in 2019 to Alcorn State in the Soul Bowl in Jackson.
Edward Waters, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Gulf Coast Athletics Conference member, is the oldest HBCU in the state of Florida and finished 1–10 last season. The program's most notable football alum is running back Jim "Cannonball" Butler, who played in one Pro Bowl in the NFL.
Jackson State is the favorite to win, but the Tigers will need to keep an eye on EWC's biggest playmakers in running backs Corey Hammett and De'Shaun Hugee and receivers Steavenson Fernand and Sam Thompson.
With a question mark surrounding JSU's offense, Pollock hopes the Tigers' quick tempo and pass-heavy offense will continue to get better through facing a quality defense in practice.
"We're playing against a Power-5 caliber defense as far as talent goes, Pollock told the Clarion Ledger about Jackson State's other side of the ball. "I love going against them because it makes me a better coach, makes us a better offense and identifies our weaknesses."
JSU's defense features a former Georgia commit, defensive back De'Jahn Warren and former Tennessee walk-on linebacker Nyles Gaddy, to name a few. The Tigers also return senior defensive back CJ Holmes and the reigning SWAC Defensive Player of the Year Keonte Hampton.
When Sanders was named the Tigers' coach, Hampton—who finished with 109 tackles, 4.5 sacks, one pass breakup and a forced fumble as a junior—told Sports Illustrated that he was only concerned about winning in the spring season
"I never lost so much until l got here so I pray we can change this around," Hampton said. "In high school, I only lost one or two games in a year. I don't like all the attention but when I am on the field, you can put all of that attention on me."
Holmes, whose father played football at fellow SWAC school Alabama State, says playing for Sanders is like a dream come true.
"I am going to try to soak up all the knowledge I can from him," he says. "He is a Hall of Fame defensive back of the NFL.
"Our goal is to win games and we are not going to take no team for granted. We're going to go out there, do our assignment and play good football."
In a clash of the Tigers on Sunday, Sanders hopes to lead his team to victory in what begins as one of JSU's six games on ESPN's family of networks in front of a limited capacity of 11,000 fans due to COVID-19 regulations.
Along with fans, Sanders and his players—who will be playing in one of their new Under Armour uniforms—will get to hear The Sonic Boom of the South, but will not hear Edward Waters band as the SWAC announced no visiting team bands will be allowed to travel to games.
"The game atmosphere, the best band and hearing that in the sound of your ear, it just gets you hype," Holmes says. "The fans are amazing and it's all apart of the 'THEE I LOVE' culture at JSU."
While the stadium will not be in full capacity and grills will not be sizzling for tailgates like it will be in the fall, Robinson says this is the start of a new beginning.
"This is the JSU I grew up watching," he says. "I grew up on West Street, right down the road from the stadium. I would always hear the Boom on game days and this was a time JSU had 40 to 50,000 people strong.
"So, this is really a game-changer of having 'Coach Prime' and we want to continue to build and blaze new trails."