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Jackson State’s Shedeur Sanders regains confidence after midseason challenges

Quarterback ‘felt like I just lost something’ after shoulder injury

JACKSON, Miss. — The stats are gaudy, yet they mean little to Jackson State University quarterback Shedeur Sanders.

The victories have been plentiful, 12 of them without a loss, yet they have been unfulfilling.

This has been a difficult season for Sanders, fighting through injuries and inconsistency and too often failing to meet his own high standard.

“The whole middle of the season I felt like I just lost something,” Sanders said. “The ‘it’ factor and being a difference-maker. I was hurt, so I couldn’t get into the weight room, and all that stuff takes a toll on you. It affected me because I started thinking. When you’re not thinking and playing free, it’s easy.”

For the first time in months, though, he feels good physically as he prepares to play in the Cricket Celebration Bowl against North Carolina Central University (9-2) on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta in what should be his final game at Jackson State.

He is expected to join his father, Jackson State coach Deion Sanders, at Colorado next season. Sanders accepted the head coaching position at Colorado on Dec. 3, a couple of hours after Jackson State beat Southern in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game.

Winning the Celebration Bowl and being dominant in the process has been Jackson State’s goal since offseason workouts began in January. The Tigers have won all but one game this season by at least 11 points.

Now, Sanders has a chance to complete the task and erase the memory of last year’s 31-10 loss to South Carolina State in the Celebration Bowl, in which he passed for just 175 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions and completed just 16 of 36 passes.

The circumstances of this season have prepared Sanders for any adversity he faces in the Celebration Bowl.

Yes, he has 3,403 passing yards and 36 touchdowns, but he has spent the season trying to achieve the standard he established in the opener against Florida A&M, in which he passed for 323 yards and five touchdowns, while completing 29 of 33 passes as Jackson State won 59-3.

The season changed for Sanders against Alabama State in Week 5, when he sprained his right shoulder. He didn’t realize how much it would affect him until he underthrew a wide-open receiver Shane Hooks the next week against Bethune-Cookman and the pass was intercepted.

“He missed that one throw and it started to get in his head a little bit,” offensive coordinator Brett Bartolone said. “The week off before Southern was big for us because it allowed him to get healthy. He looked like he was back to normal and played like it.”

Sanders averaged 333 passing yards with 22 touchdown passes in the first six games. In the next six games he averaged 234.2 passing yards with 14 touchdown passes. Understand, Jackson State plays in a one-back offense where passing yards should be plentiful.

Besides the injury, teams started dropping eight defenders into coverage and playing their safeties deep. Defenses wanted to test his patience, forcing him to take checkdowns and underneath throws instead of attacking downfield.

Teams also tried to frustrate him by using coverages and schemes against Jackson State that they hadn’t used all season, rendering his film study during the week virtually useless.

“Shedeur is a completion quarterback,” coach Deion Sanders said. “We try to get him some easy throws early every game because when he gets in rhythm he’s a problem.”

In the SWAC championship game, Sanders found his rhythm, passing for 320 yards and four touchdowns.

None of that matters now, though. He has an opportunity at redemption and to put his name in the annals of Jackson State and SWAC history with a perfect season.

“It’s all about confidence,”’he said. “If I’m very confident and I’m confident in the line and the line has confidence and the receivers have confidence, then it’s all going to click with ease. That’s how it felt in the last game.”

Liner Notes

Cricket Bowl Celebration When: Noon EST, Saturday. Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta. Watch: ABC. Information: www.thecelebrationbowl.com

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.