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Jackson State defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman relies on his eyes, not the stats

NFL vet says Tigers ‘need to play much better’ while preparing for Southern

JACKSON, Miss. – Jackson State University leads the FCS in total defense. And sacks. And fewest points allowed.

Defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman does not care – at all.

These days there isn’t much wrong with Jackson State’s defense, which will attempt to shut down Southern University (5-2) at 2 p.m. EST Saturday at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.

So what if Jackson State allows just 190.3 yards per game, has 28 sacks and yields just 10.1 points per game? 

As a coach, Thurman has never cared about statistics until the end of the season.

“What do they mean?” he said Wednesday after practice. “I use my eyes. Those numbers make you feel a certain way. The eye test tells me we need to play much better.

“I don’t even want to hear about the numbers. When you don’t look at the numbers, you don’t fail to fix what is wrong.”

Thurman is the maestro of Jackson State’s defensive symphony. He has been coach Deion Sanders’ defensive coordinator for each of the three seasons he has been at Jackson State.

“He’s a patient teacher because he sees things from your perspective,” said senior linebacker Aubrey Miller Jr. “I call him old school because he brings an old-school vibe to us. Off the field, he’s cool. On the field, he’s always locked in.”

Thurman, who played nine seasons in the NFL, has been coached by some of the best football minds. He also has coached some of the best football players, too.

He has learned from all of them, and those lessons have allowed him to pour into Jackson State’s players.

“He understands his players and what we can and cannot do,” said sophomore defensive end Jeremiah Brown. “He makes the game really simple for us.”

At USC, Thurman played for legendary coaches John McKay and John Robinson. From McKay, he learned to keep calling the same play until the opponent stops it; from Robinson, he learned to be simplistic in his coaching points.

In the NFL, he played for Pro Football Hall of Famer Tom Landry, who taught Thurman that if he didn’t fix problems on defense, other teams would exploit those issues at the worst possible time.

Thurman, who coached 17 seasons in the NFL, has worked as a defensive coordinator with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills.

He has coached some of the best players in NFL history, including Troy Polamalu, Darrelle Revis, Ed Reed and, yes, Sanders. Polamalu, Reed and Sanders are in the Hall of Fame, and Revis is one of the nominees for the 2023 class.

“DT is great with adjustments,” said Sanders, who was coached by Thurman in Baltimore. “Once he figures out what you’re doing, it stops.”

That’s among the reasons Jackson State is 7-0 and has outscored its opponents 165-28 in the second half. There’s nothing he has not seen at this level, which gives him an advantage.

In Jackson State’s 22-14 win over Campbell on Oct. 23, the Camels gained 121 yards in the first quarter and only 126 in the last three.

Thurman has a knack for finding weaknesses in pass protections and attacking them.

He believes in blitzing and playing man-to-man defense. So he attacks from the beginning in a never-ending quest to control the game’s tempo.

“We want them uncomfortable,” Thurman said. “We want them adjusting to us. We don’t want to be adjusting to them.”

Jean-Jacques Taylor is an award-winning journalist who is currently president of JJT Media Group and has covered sports in Dallas-Fort Worth for 31 years.