Twin threats: Jackrabbits' Janke brothers deliver for SDSU in playoff run
Madison natives Jadon and Jaxon Janke have led a young receiving corps for SDSU
BROOKINGS — Needing some playmakers at wide receiver for the 2021 season, twin brothers Jadon and Jaxon Janke believed in themselves to fill the void.
Since they believed in themselves to walk onto the South Dakota State University football roster, they’ve bet on themselves. And the Madison natives and their Jackrabbit teammates are cashing in on their successes, leading the Jackrabbits to Sunday’s FCS championship game showdown against Sam Houston.
With the departure of standout receiver Cade Johnson after the 2020 fall season was postponed to spring so that Johnson could pursue the NFL Draft, SDSU saw 72.8% of its receiving yards production from 2019 no longer on the roster. Fellow Madison product Mason Leighton is the only upperclassmen on the Jackrabbits' two-deep depth chart. Jaxon Janke said he and his brother knew it was their time to step up and meet the challenge.
“Losing Cade, that’s a huge piece of the puzzle. … I’m sure a lot of people thought the receivers weren’t going to do anything and we had nothing,” Jaxon Janke said. “We took that personally. We knew we had a good receiving corps that put in the work, and we knew we could trust our scheme and the playbook and go make plays.”
Four key storylines to watch in South Dakota State-Sam Houston FCS championship game
Now in 2021, the Janke twins — both sophomores, both listed at 210 pounds and with Jadon one inch taller at 6-3 — account for 53.4% of the receiving yards for the Jacks and 11 of the team’s 16 touchdown catches, pulling their weight in helping SDSU have a balanced offense. In nine games played, SDSU does not have a receiver with 30 or more catches.
Jaxon Janke, who wears No. 10, has 29 catches for 438 yards and six touchdowns, while Jadon Janke, who wears No. 9, has made 19 catches for 412 yards and five touchdowns.
The brothers are also a key part of making big plays for SDSU’s offense. Of the 30 plays to go for 30 yards or more this season, the twins are responsible for four each in the receiving or return game. (Nine different Jackrabbits have accounted for a 30-yard play this year, led by running back Isaiah Davis with eight, followed by Pierre Strong Jr. with five.)
“Anytime you can hit a big play, it lights a fire for the sideline for the offense,” Jaxon said. “Our offense, we feed on big plays, especially from the defense. When we have a big run or hit a good throw in the pass game, you can tell what kind of difference it makes.”
For followers of South Dakota high school football, 2021 looks like a continuation of what fans saw from the duo while they were at Madison High School, leading the Bulldogs to three straight titles from 2015 to 2017, with Jadon as a 1,300-yard rusher as a senior, and Jaxon racking up 1,300 yards receiving with 53 offensive touchdowns between them.
The pair committed late to SDSU as walk-ons, having the difficult decision of whether to pursue basketball or football. But seasons like this were what they had in mind when they decided to pursue Division I college football 40 miles to the north of their hometown in Brookings.
“This is definitely what you think about as a kid, growing up and you imagine yourself winning state championships, winning national championships,” Jadon said. “We’re fortunate to try to take this next step.”
Jadon went through 2018 and 2019 playing mostly special teams, blocking a punt in each season but he did not have a catch in his young college career prior to the start of this spring season. So he dug into improving his game, particularly fine-tuning his speed and technique at the wide receiver position to put himself on the field on offense.
“Being on special teams until this year, it was really fuel to my fire. I thought I was good enough to play and so I really spent the last year working on every aspect of my game,” he said. “Getting a lot stronger and faster and working through my drills. And that being said, I know there’s a lot of things I can get better at, too.”
Jaxon was more established, especially after a 2019 season where he earned freshman All-America honors for his play as a punt returner and receiver. He said the passing game has clicked quickly with Mark Gronowski, the SDSU freshman quarterback who finished second in the voting for the Jerry Rice Award, which goes to the nation’s best FCS freshman player.
“Coming from the start, we saw he had the highest ceiling and potential,” Jaxon said. “He’s really done a great job of taking the reins and he’s been so impressive. He doesn’t look like a freshman, he looks like a senior, honestly.”
Scouting Sam Houston’s defense, SDSU’s offense expects to see a lot of man-to-man coverage on the wide receivers, which could allow SDSU’s backs and receivers opportunities to win battles and get open for Gronowski.
“When you hear one-on-one, it gets our mouths wet,” Jadon Janke said. “We’ve got a great chance to make those plays come out our way. We know our job is to make sure we get open and then help our team find the end zone.”
And the Janke clan is excited about Texas. Each receiver — part of a family with seven children — got four tickets through the team, and Jadon said his family snapped up another 12 tickets to allow the rest of the family to attend Sunday’s game.
“They’re all super excited. We’ve got a super close family and I think that’s pretty rare, honestly,” Jadon Janke said. “Our parents couldn’t be more excited and we’re just excited to get to play.”