Shedeur Sanders has been one of the country’s best freshmen.
He’s not surprised. At all.
Sanders, a four-star recruit from Trinity Christian (Texas) High School, had committed to Florida Atlantic until his father took the Jackson State head-coaching job.
As the highest-rated recruit to sign with Jackson State, Sanders arrived as the face of a program yearning for the glory days when Jackson State dominated the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).
He has not disappointed.
He’s passed for nearly 3,000 yards with 28 touchdowns and five interceptions while leading Jackson State to its first 10-win season since 1996.
He was nicknamed “Grown” by his daddy Deion because he has an old soul.
He has already been named SWAC Freshman of the Year.
He’s also a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award, given annually to the nation’s top FCS freshman.
“I feel like it’s expected. I should be in the running for that. You see the change that we’re doing here,” Sanders said matter-of-factly. “It’s cool, but I feel like the freshman player of the year is who made the biggest impact.
“You see who’s making the biggest impact, but I’m more concerned about finishing the season. The stats and accolades and all that stuff I’ll enjoy after the season.”
Sanders will need to play well, as usual, to help Jackson State (10-1) beat Prairie View (7-4) on Saturday at 3 p.m. CT on ESPN2 at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium to win its first SWAC championship since 2007 and advance to the Cricket Celebration Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 18 against South Carolina State.
“I’m proud of him the way he’s played, the way he sees the field, the way he’s encouraged his teammates, the way he approaches practice daily, the way he gets on their butts when they not doing what they need to do,” head coach Deion Sanders said. “I’m just proud of his maturity and who he is on and off the field.”
Shedeur Sanders has been among Jackson State’s best players since his first practice. He commanded respect from his teammates and coaches with his work ethic, and respect from opposing coaches with his weekly performances.
He has passed for at least 200 yards in every game, including three games of more than 300 yards. Six times, Sanders has thrown at least three touchdown passes.
“He’s led that offense all year,” said Texas Southern coach Clarence McKinney. “You see the numbers he’s put up and he’s done a tremendous job running that offense and leading those guys.”
Gary Harrell, who served as Jackson State’s head coach when Deion Sanders missed three games, said the freshman has played his best football at the end of the season.
“He’s getting better as far as understanding what we’re trying to get done schemewise,” Harrell said. “You see him changing the plays and the protections. He’s an extension of [offensive coordinator] T.C. Taylor.
“He’s not an individual guy. He’s a team player. A lot of things he does comes through the scheme. He’s not forcing it. He’ll take what the defense gives him.”
What’s been most impressive about Sanders this season is the way he’s handled adversity on or off the field.
In the middle of the season, Sanders also played three games without his famous father on the sideline — he was recovering from toe surgery — for the first time.
“It was different. My dad’s been at my games my whole life. For him to [not] be physically able to do that, it was very different. It was like something was missing,” Sanders said. “There wasn’t no compensation for it. It was just getting out there and playing the game. It was just a matter of staying focused.”
He’s rallied the slow-starting Tigers to several come-from-behind wins.
Against Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Sanders struggled much of the game but threw a pair of touchdown passes in the final six minutes to rally Jackson State past the Jaguars 21-17.
With 1:31 left, Sanders avoided pressure in the pocket and delivered a 50-yard touchdown pass to Malachi Wideman while getting drilled by a defender.
Then the quarterback headed to the sideline and embraced his dad for nearly a minute.
“It was cool and I was excited for it, but we have bigger plans than just winning our side of the conference,” Sanders said. “We have to win the whole thing. The East don’t matter if you don’t win the whole entire thing.
“It was fun that we did what we came here to do, but the job isn’t done.”