When Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler started to make changes to his team’s identity to better compete on the FCS national level, he knew two things needed to happen. The first was to toughen up on defense. The second was to get stronger in the run game and become less dependent on being a pass-happy team.
SHSU invested in its strength and conditioning program and also brought in some transfers to fill gaps, notably on the defensive line in 2019. The Bearkats improved drastically on defense but lacked offensive explosion. After the Bearkats fell short of the 2019 playoffs and the season concluded, they announced the early signing class in December. One of the names in the class was a transfer running back from Garden City Community College (Kansas) by the name of Ramon Jefferson.
The reaction from those that follow the FCS nationally and remembered that name was, “Oh, that’s a good get right there.”
Jefferson was a bright young star in 2018, but he left the FCS scene under tough circumstances after that season. A stop at the junior college level during the 2019 season was what he needed, though, which led to a return to the FCS and being an integral part of SHSU’s 2020-21 national championship run.
“Coach Keeler told me straight-up, he said, ‘Listen, man, we want you. We’re going to offer you first, not because we want to be first but because we have big plans for you,’” Jefferson told HERO Sports this week.
Indeed, those big plans have all worked out.
After being one of the best young running backs in the FCS, then dropping down to junior college, Jefferson returned to Division I and is once again a top back in the subdivision.
An FCS Star Is Born
From the Bronx, New York, Jefferson received late D1 offers from Maine and New Hampshire and also had some interest from FBS Rutgers.
He chose Maine, and after redshirting in 2017, he burst onto the FCS scene with a standout 2018 season. Jefferson rushed for 1,037 yards and eight touchdowns on 182 carries to help Maine advance to the semifinals for the first time in school history.
Jefferson earned 2018 HERO Sports Freshman All-American honors.
His promising football career took a bad turn, though, when he pled guilty in May 2019 to criminal mischief from a Feb. 8 incident. Jefferson remained on the team, but in June he decided to transfer.
“The off-the-field issues got resolved, but I felt like it was best to leave the school due to the situation and just get a fresh start,” Jefferson said. “I just felt like it was best for me to get a new experience … I never thought I would go the JuCo route. But that was a blessing in disguise.”
Some East Coast FCS schools showed interest in Jefferson after he decided to transfer. The timing (just a couple of months before preseason camp), coupled with the Class D charge that resulted in a $250 fine, made it difficult to find a school for the 2019 season.
Jefferson ended up transferring to Garden City Community College in Kansas.
A Fresh Start
Jefferson’s production on the field continued, rushing for 994 yards and 13 TDs at Garden City CC in 2019.
Going from a Freshman All-American D1 running back to playing junior college ball wasn’t easy for Jefferson.
“It was tough, but you meet a lot of guys in JuCo that go through a lot of different stuff,” he said. “Having that kind of bond and going the JuCo route, it’s like a second family. Because you go to a JuCo, everyone wants the same thing. Everyone wants an offer or go D1.”
Jefferson received several of those coveted D1 offers. The first came from SHSU, the team Jefferson decided to sign with in December of 2019.
“A lot of coaches will try to hold off on offers for small-school guys,” Jefferson said. “But coach Keeler was honest with me and said we’re offering you because we want you.”
A New Home
At 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds, Jefferson runs with the physicality that the Bearkats were searching for. He’s also a big-play threat, which is still a staple of SHSU’s explosive offense.
Before the 2020-21 season, the Bearkats added Jefferson, Harvard transfer receiver Cody Chrest, and Howard transfer receiver Jequez Ezzard.
SHSU regained its offensive explosion, boosted by a healthy Eric Schmid at quarterback. And along with the defensive standouts that emerged in 2019, the Bearkats finished the 2021 spring season 10-0 en route to the program’s first FCS national championship.
Ezzard was named to several All-American teams as the home-run hitter on offense and special teams, Chrest was a reliable target and led the team with 41 catches, and Jefferson allowed the offense to have a run-pass balance. He finished sixth in the FCS with 752 rushing yards while also rushing for seven touchdowns in 10 games played. The All-Southland Conference Second Team selection had four combined rushing touchdowns in the first round, quarterfinal, and semifinal games and then ran for 96 yards in the national championship.
The Bearkats put it all together with a combination of transfers and veteran players that have been on the roster for years. Add in the fact that teams were broken into small groups for meetings and workouts due to COVID protocols, and the national championship run was even more special.
“We have a lot of great guys on the team,” Jefferson said. “Without that, we wouldn’t have had the bond to go and win a national championship. It does take a special bond. There’s a lot of talented teams, but I feel there are a lot of special guys here. Bonding through COVID was rough because they basically told us to just stay away from everybody as a big group.”
“As a transfer, you come in and you always wonder how the program does things,” he added. “And obviously, coach Keeler runs the team, but he wants the players to lead. Those guys that were already here, they show you the ropes and are very welcoming. A lot of teams, from seniors down to the freshmen, may not get the same respect. Everyone gets the same respect here, from new recruits, transfers, practice players, everybody.”
The locker room culture helped keep the roster intact with the short turnaround time to the 2021 fall season. Seniors decided to use their extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA, and the elite players didn’t dabble into the transfer portal like dozens of FCS standouts did.
SHSU is 5-0 this season and ranked No. 1. Jefferson has 66 rushes for 472 yards and five TDs. His 7.15 yards per carry ranks No. 7 in the FCS.
“We know there’s a lot going on right now and there are a lot of teams getting knocked off,” Jefferson said. “So we know we have to come out strong every Saturday. Being the defending national champ means that you are at the top of the mountain and people are trying to knock you off. You kind of know what the other teams are doing. You check the scores Sunday morning or Saturday night and see how teams are doing. But ultimately, we just focus on us knowing we’re going to get every team’s best shot.”
Jefferson, who is listed as a redshirt junior, will play a key part in his team being able to make a deep playoff run, just like he did in his first collegiate season at Maine.
From New York to Maine to Kansas to Texas, Jefferson is feeling at home and is showing the FCS his abilities once again.
“I never pictured living in Texas, but the people out here are great,” he said. “It’s a great community. You go around town and you wear a Sam Houston shirt and you’ll hold a 10-minute conversation with someone you’ve never seen in your life. It’s great, the people here are nice, and it’s very welcoming.”
Check out the latest episode of the FCS Football Talk podcast, which is also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart, Stitcher, and Spreaker.
SUBSCRIBE: FCS Football Talk