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Perception of Jackson State, HBCUs has (finally) changed for in-state recruits

Madison Central receiver Isaiah Spencer one of several high-profile Mississippi athletes now considering Jackson State

JACKSON — When Madison Central wideout Isaiah Spencer was a sophomore and starting to look at potential schools for college ball, there were plenty of names you would expect on his list.

Both the in-state SEC schools, a couple of other "Power-5" suitors and some nice G-5 options like Southern Miss and Arkansas State, among others.

But nowhere on that list was Jackson State, a school that plays and practices less than 15 minutes away from Madison Central.

"I never saw myself as a Jackson State or SWAC guy," Spencer said Tuesday. "I never really thought about going to Jackson State. I always thought of myself as an SEC or ACC-type guy."

Flash forward a couple of years, and all that has changed, and almost 100 percent thanks to JSU head coach Deion Sanders.

Spencer took his official visit to Jackson State for the Tigers' homecoming game last weekend. He saw household names like Rick Ross and Snoop Dogg celebrating with the team. He saw the makeshift barbershop lining guys up in the JSU locker room. He sat down with FCS offensive player of the year candidate Shedeur Sanders.

Most importantly, he watched the fifth-ranked Tigers move to 7-0.

"It was great," he said. "They treat guys right. They all know what Coach Prime expects out of them, and you can tell that (Sanders) really cares about them."

Spencer is just one of several Mississippi prospects who have come around on the idea of staying close to home to play for Sanders and Jackson State. While Prime and his staff have pulled big-name prospects from surrounding states, the local talent has still, at least to this point, remained fixated on playing for Ole Miss, Mississippi State or any of the other juggernauts in the SEC.

And with the JSU-Southern University rivalry set to take center stage on ESPN's flagship college football show "Gameday" Saturday, you can expect that trend to continue.

A look at the list of Mississippi products headed for Jackson this weekend includes guys like Choctaw County wideout Caleb Cunningham, Oak Grove quarterback Anthony Maddox, Jr. and St. Joe quarterback Emile Picarella.

Cunningham reportedly holds offers from Florida, Florida State, Georgia and Mississippi State, among others. Maddox, a 2024 prospect, reportedly holds an Alabama offer, and Picarella, a 2025 recruit, has received interest from Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State and Oregon, among others.

There are others: 

  • 2024 Picayune tailback Chris Davis, who holds offers from Georgia Tech, Mississippi State and Florida State.
  • 2024 Pascagoula defensive lineman Jeffery Rush, Jr., who holds offers from Arkansas, Ole Miss, Southern Miss and Florida State
  • 2023 Clarksdale corner Kelley Jones, who is committed to Mississippi State

The idea that JSU would host a list of recruits of that caliber was pie-in-the-sky fantasy two years ago.

And it isn't that they're just visiting for the spectacle of "Gameday." At least for Spencer, JSU is seriously in the running.

"I definitely am considering JSU," he said. "With (Shadeur Sanders) back there throwing the ball? Shoot. I'd be crazy not to. Coach Prime told me he's been hearing everyone say he doesn't recruit locally, but I'm definitely going to give them a long, hard look."