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One of HBCU's bright young stars is preparing to experience NFL coaching with Seattle Seahawks

Jonathan Saxon, SC State's defensive coordinator, is the guy whose defense stymied Deion Sanders in the Celebration Bowl and now is going to learn in the NFL

Coincidence, perhaps.

Far more likely, rising to the occasion.

Months ago, in arguably the biggest moment of his ascending coaching career, Jonathan Saxon knows unprecedented eyeballs will be on this game.

A larger-than-usual in-person crowd, inside Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, to witness the game live, and millions of TVs, iPads and personal devices across the country with access to stream the Celebration Bowl.

The unofficial Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) natty.

Perhaps the stamping-his-arrival moment of Saxon’s career, a defensive tour de force from South Carolina State’s defense in the Bulldogs’ 31-10 shellacking of Jackson State.

Yes, Deion Sanders’ Jackson State Tigers. Now, less than six months later, Saxon is preparing to grow his career again – participating in the NFL’s prestigious Bill Walsh Internship program with the Seattle Seahawks. He’s joining former Louisville mentor Clint Hurtt’s Seahawks’ defensive staff across much of the next six weeks into the early portion of summer.

“It was an amazing experience for what this team went through, because we had played one of the toughest schedules of anybody in FCS,” Saxon tells FootballScoop. “But it helped us to get better and better as the year went on. A lot of people counted us out halfway through the season.

“And even going into that game, a lotta people counted us out, but we had guys who believed from August 1 all the way through. We just said go give our best and leave it out there.”

Hardly any real estate was left for Sanders’s JSU squad; it closed the game with less than 200 yards’ offense, a scant 19 on the ground, and a pair of turnovers.

While Sanders’s marketing and name recognition brought eyeballs, Saxon’s defense brought the execution in SCSU’s runaway-win.

The son of longtime South Carolina prep football coach Thomas Saxon, the Bulldogs’ veteran defensive coordinator recalled his earliest football memories “as being a snot-nosed kids just running around ball fields” and never once made the game more than just the game, either in his players’ preparations or in his game plan.

“It was definitely exciting to go against Coach Sanders; Coach Prime, he’s brought an extra light to Black colleges, and we appreciate him for that,” says Saxon, a former South Carolina State star offensive lineman. “You’ve gotta seize it because you don’t want to go out there and get embarrassed.

“We always say, ‘If that shoe was on the other foot, what would that team do to you?’ We had a small spotlight, but he’s magnified it 1000 times. You have to appreciate that you get to play, bringing light and pushing the HBCU culture, game on ABC, going against Coach Prime, Jackson State. Coach (Buddy) Pugh had been trying to get to that part for a long time for our school.”

None of which surprises Old Dominion Executive Senior Assistant Athletics Director Ron Moses.

With his own coaching background, in addition to selfless service to the country in the United States Army’s 48th Infantry Brigade Combat team as well as other duties, Moses possesses a rare perspective and understanding of leadership qualities that translate real-life battlefields to those of the athletics variety.

“What really stood out was that he had a really good feel for the game and knowledge of the game, but what I appreciated was his connectivity to the players,” says Moses, his own career path expanding as one of college athletics’ bright young executive minds. “He makes sure they know it’s so much more than ball, that you’re going to earn a degree and be prepared for life.

“So many coaches can get bogged down in the numbers, just getting kids in and out. Jonathan’s going to make sure you maximize your potential on the field, but he’s also committed to helping make sure you maximize yourself off the field.”

Jonathan Saxon points to the own influences in his life, from those care-free days on his father’s Orangeburg-Wilkinson field to his ever-growing mentorship under Pugh, as well as myriad others including Charlie Strong and Hurtt, among others, during Saxon’s two-year stint helping coach Louisville’s defensive line.

“These guys have really played a pivotal role for me, and I can reach out to them at any time,” says Saxon, emphasizing his intent to carry that approach on to a new generation of players and coaches. “All these guys, Coach Strong, he gave me my first job and I learned so much just being a 23-year-old kid (on staff at Louisville). These coaches played major roles for me as a player and going through coaching. Each part of my life they touched it, and they still reach out to me.”

In Saxon, Moses sees another coach ready to take up the mantle – on the field and in greater social spaces.

“One of those football sayings coaches have told me was when you win they love you, you lose they hate you, and when you leave they forget about you,” Moses shares. “Jon is just the opposite; he’s let me teach you while you’re here, so that when you leave you’re better and you can make these lessons applicable to life.

“What Deion Sanders has done has kind of shined the light on, ‘Hey, there are really good coaches at that level.’ Not just the FCS level, but it also can be really hard for a coach to break out of the HBCU realm, and I tell folks, think about some of the top name coaches, where Coach (Nick) Saban started (Kent State), Kirby (Smart, Valdosta State), Will Muschamp (West Georgia), going from D-2 schools and things of that nature. It’s not different. Going into the Celebration Bowl, it gave Jon a chance to do what he’s supposed to do, to be able to showcase what he’s been doing but maybe just hasn’t had the light.”

A shine only getting brighter.

“I think the HBCU space is a good inflection point and launching point in Jon’s career,” Moses says. “I think he can replicate those same numbers, he easily can come to the FBS level and kind of do some of same things. Where Deion has shined the light on some other coaches he’s going against, and Deion arguably has the best talent at the FCS level, all of it, he’s got some of the best of the best, really an amalgamation of FCS and FBS talent, and more coaches like Jon are showing what they can do.”