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T.C. Taylor takes over at Jackson State needing to fill openings, retain key players

Deion Sanders lauded new coach after Celebration Bowl loss to N.C. Central

ATLANTA — The official coronation of new Jackson State University coach T.C. Taylor occurred Saturday afternoon before a group of teary-eyed players.

Outgoing head coach Deion Sanders addressed his team for the final time after North Carolina Central University ruined the Tigers’ bid for a perfect season with a 41-34 overtime victory in the Cricket Celebration Bowl. It was Jackson State’s second consecutive loss in the game.

“God sent a man to you, a man that’s worthy, a man that knows this game and a man that’s a darn good coach,” said Sanders, motioning for Taylor to join him in front of the team. “He has my utmost respect and support. The way you fought for us, I want you to fight for him. The way you practiced for us, I want you to practice for him. My brother, I love you. I appreciate you, and you’re the man for this.”

Taylor addressed Jackson State’s players and coaches in a team meeting Dec. 16, which wasn’t unusual – all of the position coaches typically give their thoughts on the upcoming game.

“There will never be another team like this,” Taylor said, pacing in a small circle as all 12 receivers on the roster stood behind him. He grimaced while trying to not let the evening’s emotions overwhelm him.

Twenty-one seconds passed before he spoke.

“This is a special group of players, coaches and trainers. We do a lot of laughing. We have a lot of fun,” he said. “That’s what’s sad about the season coming to an end. Some of you got plans. The seniors are done. All year long, all I can remember is the laughter. That’s what I’m going to miss. We have a couple days left with each other and then everybody is going to their next journey.”

Taylor then walked toward Sanders.

“I love this man. I love his vision. I love his consistency. Every day through sickness and health he did his thing,” Taylor said. “I wanted to mimic that. I chased that every day. That’s why I don’t want it to end, but I’m going to continue it. I’m not going to stop. This football team is not going to stop and in 2023 we’re not going to stop.”

As soon as the Celebration Bowl ended, Taylor became Jackson State’s future and Sanders became part of its history.

On Dec. 13, Jackson State named Taylor to replace Sanders, who was named Colorado’s head coach on Dec. 3. Sanders had endorsed Taylor the night he told the team he was leaving.

Assistant coaches Andre’ Hart (linebackers) and Kevin Mathis (secondary), who have been with Sanders since he coached youth football in Dallas nearly 20 years ago, will join him in Colorado, as will defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, offensive coordinator Brett Bartolone and tight ends coach Tim Brewster. Strength and conditioning coach Mo Sims, who was a member of Georgia’s championship staff in 2021, will join Sanders, too, Sims said.

Obviously, Taylor must fill several spots on his coaching staff, including both coordinator positions. Taylor, who previously was offensive coordinator at North Carolina Central, called plays at Jackson State for the last nine games of the 2021 season. He’s leaning toward letting his coordinator call plays but has not made a final decision.

Defensive line coach Jeff Weeks and special teams coach Alan Ricard could remain at Jackson State. Taylor also could promote one of several graduate assistants or analysts to full-time coaching positions.

The key staff member he’ll retain is Otis Riddley, the director of player personnel; after all, recruiting is the lifeblood of any college football program.

Taylor’s biggest challenge is keeping key players who won’t be joining Sanders in Colorado.

In his first team meeting with Colorado’s players, Sanders suggested he might take as many as 10 Jackson State players with him. He has said publicly that quarterback Shedeur Sanders will join him at Colorado, and safety Shilo Sanders is expected to leave with his father and brother.

During an Instagram livestream Dec. 16, Deion Sanders also said cornerback/receiver Travis Hunter Jr. would be joining him “real soon.” Shedeur and Shilo Sanders and Hunter all have entered the transfer portal since Jackson State’s loss.

Taylor may find himself competing with Sanders for players on Jackson State’s roster. His advantage is that many of Jackson State’s best players transferred into the program. They can’t transfer again without sitting out a year unless they graduate.

Jackson State has received national attention this season that Taylor can use to his advantage. He already knows the phone calls he must make to fill out his staff – and when the team returns to Jackson, Mississippi, he’ll walk off the plane as the man responsible for maintaining the standard Sanders created.

“You know how to overcome this adversity we’re facing,” Sanders told Taylor in front of the team. “I want you to make it back here [to the Celebration Bowl] and do it. I believe in you.”

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.