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HBCU Football

Jackson State’s Deion Sanders changes the national recruiting conversation with his approach

Grambling, Florida A&M and other schools have to level up to keep pace with the Tigers

It never occurred to Jackson State coach Deion Sanders that he couldn’t persuade four- and five-star recruits to play football at a historically Black college and university (HBCU).

So he went after some of the nation’s best players in his first full season at Jackson State.

And he was rewarded with another stellar class headlined by two of the top players in the country: Travis Hunter and Kevin Coleman Jr.

Hunter, who grew up a fan of Sanders, is the nation’s top-rated cornerback and No. 2 overall on the ESPN 300 list. Coleman, one of the nation’s top slot receivers, is ranked No. 62 on the list.

“No other HBCUs have ever recruited four- and five-star players because they felt like they never had a chance and the high school coaches don’t direct them there,” Sanders said. “[Hunter] came to homecoming.

“He saw 60,000 of us united and it was the most beautiful thing you’d ever want to see. He had been to all the major colleges, but to see your people — where you think he lives? It ain’t in the suburbs — unified, kicking it, having a good time and the pageantry. Well, that [affected] him. He went back home and started talking to his parents.

“Me and mama and his stepfather kept it 100. We really looked them in the eyes and told them the truth about everything. We weren’t trying to sell them nothing. We told her we would take care of her son,” said Sanders.

Hunter is the crown jewel, but Coleman isn’t far behind. He didn’t visit Jackson State before committing, but the thought of competing daily against Hunter and doing something different by playing at an HBCU excited him.

JSU also added offensive lineman Jasper Friis, the No. 2-ranked junior college guard, along with junior college tackle Christian Henderson and transfer offensive linemen Zach Breaux (Louisiana-Monroe), Evan Henry (Louisiana-Monroe) and Simi Moala (Utah).

In each of Jackson State’s two losses, its offensive line was manhandled.

In a 31-10 upset loss to South Carolina State in the Cricket Celebration Bowl, the Tigers rushed for just 19 yards on 29 attempts. They totaled just 194 yards.

Sanders’ top offseason goal was to improve the offensive line.

But there’s no doubt Hunter and Coleman headline a class that’s ranked No. 60 by recruiting website On3, sandwiched between Houston of the American Athletic Conference and Wake Forest of the ACC.

Grambling, ranked 136th, is the second-highest ranked class in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).

Hue Jackson, named Grambling’s head coach in December 2021, signed a school-record 36 players. Jackson had been the offensive coordinator at Tennessee State and had previously been head coach of the NFL’s then-Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns.

Kajiya Hollawayne, a former four-star quarterback who transferred from UCLA, is a player Jackson hopes can make a quick transition.

The same goes for transfer receiver Ja’ron Waters (Southern Utah) and running back Maurice Washington (Nebraska).

“This is an exciting day and time for our football team,” Jackson said in a statement. “We’ve put in a lot of work over the past month, identifying prospective student-athletes, hosting them on official visits and really showing them what Grambling State has to offer.” 

Florida A&M, which advanced to the FCS playoffs last season, is ranked 144.

“We feel this class, which is a mixture of high school, juco and four-year transfers, will continue to propel this program forward,” said FAMU coach Willie Simmons in a statement, “as we look to bring a SWAC and Celebration Bowl championship back to the Highest of Seven Hills this fall.”

JSU’s recruiting success has led to questions about whether Hunter and Coleman received lucrative name, image and likeness deals to play for the Tigers.

They have not.

“It’s almost like an African American kid wouldn’t dare to go to an African American school,” Sanders said. “It’s like Jackson State isn’t good enough. Why would we ever do that? So there had to be some false plan.

“They don’t realize a brother don’t have to pay a brother to get a brother to do what a brother wants to do. All we have to do is look mama in the eye and say, ‘If you give me a boy, there’s a good chance I’m going to send you back a man,’ and that’s all mama cares about.”

How’d other HBCUs do:

  • South Carolina State, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion and winner of the Cricket Celebration Bowl, added 24 new recruits, including 20 in-state players, to a roster that will return Shaquan Davis, offensive MVP of the bowl game.
  • Norfolk State, in its second year under coach Dawson Odums, signed 14 athletes for a total of 20 signees after commitments from six players in the December early signing period.
  • North Carolina A&T signed six defensive linemen and three defensive backs among the 14 players it signed.

Jean-Jacques Taylor, a native of Dallas, is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL for 25 years and is president of JJT Media Group.