Jackson, Miss. — James Houston walked into the Tigers media room on Tuesday, shook a few hands and laughed a little bit before he sat down at the wooden table in front of the blue Jackson State backdrop. The JSU linebacker's energy was different.
After a week of off-the-field chatter and jokes from Alabama A&M head coach Connell Maynor—who poked fun at Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders as he navigates the healing process from his foot surgery by using a scooter—all the jokes became distant memories. All the conversation by Maynor aside, Jackson State (4–1) made a statement on the field and sealed the victory afterwards, leaving a pink scooter for Maynor and leaving Louis-Crews Stadium in a cloud of dust after a dominant performance.
In front of nearly 22,000 fans in Huntsville, Alabama, the Tigers crushed AAMU in a 61-15 victory that included their best offensive performance of the season and a program-best 10 sacks, one of which came at the hands of Houston as a strip sack on Aqeel Glass that led to a 67-yard touchdown run along down the Bulldogs’ sideline.
Barring penalties—the Achilles heel for the Tigers this season—everything came together for Jackson State during AAMU homecoming. And for Houston, it was a statement win the Tigers needed as they prepare for another series of critical checkpoints in the conference schedule with hopes of competing for a spot in the SWAC Championship game.
When the Tigers face Alabama State (3–2) on Saturday afternoon at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, this checkpoint comes with a lot more pre-game pageantry and festivities that go well beyond the football field. It’s homecoming for Jackson State. And for Houston—the Florida transfer—it’s totally new experience.
“I’ve been hearing a lot from students and teammates of how the campus will get more juice and it will be a lot more activities,” Houston says. “In Florida, it’s a little different.”
But Houston—who ranks third in the FCS in sacks with 7.5—says he will be locked in while still giving alumni, fans and students a homecoming experience to remember.
Homecomings at historically black colleges and universities add something different to the weekend's college football slate. From the tailgating outside the stadium, to performances from the hottest hip-hop artists, Greek step shows, band performances and other cultural traditions, the experience is like none other.
“I like to say the band and football team are a married couple,” says Keisha Kelley, the founder of the Black College Experience, an HBCU sports podcast. “The dancers, the Greek organizations, the long nights, there’s nothing like an HBCU homecoming. It’s a moment that’ll give you chills.”
While Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders told his players to not get distracted by homecoming activities, he has not shied away from connecting with the community, urging alumni, fans and students to pack the stadium for Saturday’s game.
“We just don’t want you [fans] to do it because it is homecoming,” Sanders says. “This should be normalcy for us to show up. It shouldn’t be normal for us to stand out in the parking lot.
“Don’t just come inside the gate. When I’m flipping through channels on Saturday, I see packed stands on TV. Nobody wants to show a stadium halfway packed on television. We want to change the narrative, that means we have to pack the stadium.”
Through the first six weeks of the college football season, the Tigers led all FCS teams in average attendance with 33,652. With Jackson State off to its best start this season since 2011 and coming off a big win over AAMU, Sanders could see a much larger crowd when he looks up in the stands.
Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium’s capacity is 60,492 people. The Tigers' homecoming attendance record was set in 1989 with 53,500 fans. According to Visit Jackson, the city is expected to see an estimated economic impact of $4,498,471 from JSU’s homecoming weekend. That number encompasses lodging, transportation, food and beverage, retail, recreation, space rental and business services.
“People are going to go to different retail shops for outfits and supporting local businesses to get JSU paraphernalia,” said Yolanda Clay-Moore of Visit Jackson. “Within the metro Jackson area, hotels are booked up.”
In addition to fan and alumni attendance, the Sonic Boom of the South (SBOTS)—Jackson State's marching band—and The Prancing J-Settes—JSU’s official dance line—are celebrating 50 years in existence. To commemorate, more than 100 J-Settes will performing with the band as opposed to the typical 35-50.
Kayla Gorden, a former Prancing J-Sette and two-year captain of the group, holds a special connection to JSU. Gorden, who graduated in May, is the youngest grandchild of the late Tigers football coach W.C. Gorden, who led the program for 15 years (1976–’91) and posted more wins than any other coach in Jackson State history.
Gorden, who was named to ESPN’s Top 150 list of the greatest college football coaches of all time, produced 29 NFL draft picks at JSU. Kayla knows firsthand just how different the homecoming game is.
“It’s nothing like that adrenaline you get entering the Vet. … Hearing fans scream your name, feeling the beat of the (JSU) drumline as you prepare to perform to the infamous routine to “Get Ready”... it’s the ultimate high anyone can have.”
Kayla attended games with her grandfather as a child, sitting in the skybox while gaining a wealth of JSU knowledge.
“He [Gorden] would introduce me as 'Kayla bean' his future J-Sette,” Kayla says. “People looked at him as the winningest coach in JSU history but that was never his demeanor while being my grandfather. He was just regular ole’ pops.
“But, when I think of him and see what [Sanders] has instilled in the young men on the football team, it’s as if you can see the chemistry and confidence growing stronger. The band and the football team create the perfect family atmosphere at JSU.”
Sanders has a favorite song (“My Hitta” by YG) that the Boom plays upon request. He’s even made surprise visits to the SBOTS band practices, furthering the interconnectedness between football team and band.
“He [Sanders] sneaks up on you but once the band sees him everybody gets excited,” says Ramon Jackson, JSU’s assistant band director for marketing and media. “Wherever we’re at, he wants to hear that song and let it resonate through the whole stadium to give the team motivation to move forward.”
If the Tigers perform anything close to the quality they displayed against Alabama A&M, it won’t be a surprise to see Sanders riding down the sideline on his scooter to his favorite song again this Saturday. With T.C. Taylor calling the Tigers' offensive plays on Saturday against the Hornets, that may be a distinct possibility .
Taylor, the former tight ends coach, was recently given the reins as offensive coordinator. Jackson State's 61 points last week were the most scored in a SWAC game this season and the first time the Tigers accomplished the feat since 2010.
When Sanders gave the nod to Taylor for play calling, he was ready for the challenge.
“I’d done it before but to have this kind of talent and these kind of weapons around me, I was licking my chops,” Taylor laughed. “The goal is to not make it too difficult."
Taylor previously served as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at North Carolina Central, helping guide the Eagles to three MEAC championships (2014, 2015, 2016) and leading an offense that broke its record for total offense (4,614) in 2016.
With the Tigers celebrating homecoming, Taylor—a former Jackson State quarterback and standout wide receiver from 1998 to ’01—knows what dominant offense should like from his playing days in a blue and white uniform.
“As a player, we saw [61 points scored] when I played here and that’s what I wanted these guys to know,” Taylor says. “With this group, we can do that week in and week out but it comes down to preparation and discipline.”
With the badge of trust from Sanders to lead the offense, Taylor will oversee a Tigers offense led by FCS Freshman of the Week Shedeur Sanders, who has thrown for 1,342 yards and 13 touchdowns while completing 71.5% of his passes.
The 19-year-old connected with six different receivers in last week's win and the Tigers also had a high-powered rushing attack, finishing with 247 yards on the ground behind the play of running back Santee Marshall (123 yards), Shedeur (58) and JD Martin (44).
“Shedeur is a very even-keeled type of player, he doesn’t get too high, too low and that’s what you want at the position,” Taylor says. “He brings a lot of knowledge to be a freshman, a leader and I don’t think people realize how smart he is as a quarterback.”
Jackson State enters the game ranked third in the SWAC in scoring offense (27.4 points per game), sixth in total offense (358.6 yards per game), second in pass offense (268.4) while remaining near bottom of the conference in rushing yards per game (90.2). However, the Tigers’ offense will be tested as the Hornets ranks fourth in the conference in total defense (326.6 ypg) while giving up 28.4 points per game (sixth-best in the SWAC).
“They’ve got some really good defensive backs to get to the ball and that can really cover,” Sanders said. “Our receivers will be challenged tremendously. They [Alabama State] like to blitz but we welcome that challenge.”
Hornets defensive back Irshaad Davis is tied for eighth in the conference in tackles while Jacquez Payton sits atop the league in passes defended with seven. Linebacker Nicholas Terry has also been a force in the Hornets’ defense, hauling in 20 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss and two fumble recoveries this season.
While JSU leads the all-time series 28-16-1, Alabama State has won the last two matchups, including the 35–28 victory against JSU in the spring 2021 matchup. Alabama State running back Ezra Gray, a member of the Black College Football Player of the Year Award watchlist for 2021, gashed the Tigers’ defense for 195 yards on 23 carries and three touchdowns, including runs of 49 and 50 yards in the fourth quarter.
When Sanders was asked if he was worried about Gray’s impact ahead of Saturday’s game, he simply said he was not “concerned about anybody”.
“We [defense] were garbage in the spring, we were horrible,” Sanders says. "I’m more concerned about us in that we can be consistent with who we are.”
Jackson State brings a defense ranking seventh in the FCS in both points allowed (13.2) and yards allowed (257.2). The Tigers also sit atop the FCS in sacks per game (5.40), tackles for a loss (11.0) while ranking in the top 15 nationally in rush and pass defense.
It’s been a long three years since JSU fans could shake their blue and white pom poms to the Boom playing “Go Home” in a Tigers victory for homecoming. With Sanders leading the program, an influx of fans coming in town and a spirit of excitement permeating through the university, it’s the perfect atmosphere for Sanders to lead JSU to a much-needed homecoming victory.
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