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Jackson State’s starting quarterback position remains available for the taking

Three transfers are in the running as Tigers prepare for spring game

Jackson State University coach T.C. Taylor has one of college football’s hardest jobs: replacing former coach Deion Sanders, who led the Tigers to consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference titles before leaving the program at the end of last season to become Colorado’s coach.

​Whomever Taylor chooses to play quarterback this season has an equally difficult task: replacing Shedeur Sanders, one of the top quarterbacks in FCS football. Sanders, who passed for 3,752 yards with 40 touchdowns and six interceptions last season, transferred to Colorado to continue playing under his father.  

​Taylor will get his first look at Jason Brown, Philip Short and Zy McDonald, the three candidates to replace Sanders at quarterback, on Saturday during Jackson State’s Blue & White spring game at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. For now, though, he is adamant Jackson State isn’t close to naming a starter.

​​“We might just flip a coin,” he said.

One of the reasons Jackson State struggled in the eight seasons before Sanders’ arrival is the Tigers have had average quarterback play since Casey “White Tiger” Therriault was SWAC offensive player of the year in 2011. So there’s pressure on Taylor to make the right decision from among Brown, a former backup at Virginia Tech; Short, who ranked second in the nation among junior college quarterbacks last season with 247.0 passing yards per game at Holmes Community College in Mississippi; and McDonald, a transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette.

​“We rotate them every day to show we’re not showing any favoritism to any guy. We don’t know who’s going with [the] first team right now. All will get first-team reps,” Taylor said. “We told them that whoever can lead the offense down the field and be productive and not turn the ball over will have the edge. We need the quarterback to make the right reads and be that leader on the field.”

​Brown, playing for his third school in three years, threw just 13 passes last season for Virginia Tech. In 2021, he went 2-2 as a starter for South Carolina after the Gamecocks lost their top two quarterbacks to injury. Brown beat Florida in his first start and then beat Auburn to clinch bowl eligibility for the Gamecocks. He passed for 721 yards with eight touchdowns and six interceptions while playing in seven games overall. ​When former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler transferred to South Carolina, Brown entered the transfer portal. He spent his first three seasons playing for St. Francis, an FCS school, where in 2019 he passed for 3,084 yards with 28 touchdowns and was named to the All-American team.

​Brown’s primary competition for the starting job is expected to be Short, the 2019 Mississippi high school player of the year. Short passed for 1,976 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season for Holmes, which went 5-4. He had two games with 300 or more yards and three games with at least three touchdowns over eight starts.

McDonald, who redshirted in 2021 and has yet to throw a college pass, is also competing for the job. McDonald, like Short, is from suburban Jackson, Mississippi. He passed for more than 10,000 yards with 100 touchdowns and 28 interceptions during his high school career.

​Taylor believes in the experience of offensive coordinator Maurice Harris, who has been around dynamic offenses for years. He spent the past four seasons at Liberty University under Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze and the previous seven at Ole Miss. Harris said he is looking for a leader and player who can distribute the ball efficiently.

​“They’re all still learning,” Harris said of the three candidates. “I can’t say one is ahead of the other.”

​That should change after Saturday’s scrimmage.

Choosing the best option for quarterback is particularly important this season since JSU lost its top four receivers, Shane Hooks, Dallas Daniels, Kevin Coleman Jr. and Willie Gaines, who combined for 188 receptions, 2,388 yards and 24 touchdowns last year.

Rico Powers and Trevonte Rucker, who were role players last season, will be the main receivers this year along with Seven McGee, a former four-star receiver who transferred from Oregon.

“Rico, Trevonte and Seven are doing a good job, but we need some other guys to step up,” Taylor said. “We can’t put the entire load on them.”

JSU’s offense may be without running back Sy’Veon Wilkerson, who gained 1,190 yards and scored nine touchdowns last season. Wilkerson has not participated in spring practice and is expected to enter the transfer portal this week.

“Sy’Veon is trying to figure some things out right now,” Taylor said. “He’s a part of this football team until he tells us he’s not.”

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.