One of the most disappointing headlines for anyone that covers, watches, or even remotely cares about HBCU football, was the one that highlighted the hurtful fact that zero HBCU players were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. In fact, that's nearly been the story for the last two drafts, as only on HBCU player, Tennesse State's Lachavious Simmons was selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. Simmons was selected with the 227th pick (7th Round) of the draft by the Chicago Bears. NFL Drafts in 2019 and 2018 did not produce a large number of selected players from HBCUs, 4 players in 2019 and 3 players in 2018. Those drafts did, however, produce very impactful players, taken early, as offensive tackle Tytus Howard (Alabama State), was taken in the first round in 2019, and current NFL Pro-Bowl Star Linebacker Darius Leonard (South Carolina State) was taken in the second in 2018. Therefore, for the last 4 drafts, NFL teams have selected a grand total of 8 players from HBCU schools. To put that in perspective, The University of Alabama, has had a total of 10 players drafted in the 1st round alone, if you combined the past two drafts (2020, 2021). The University of Michigan had 8 players selected in the 2021 draft. Though some would place the blame the last two seasons on the pandemic and the decreased exposure to players in interviews and private workouts, the numbers of HBCU players selected in the NFL draft are staggering and noticeable. Coach Deion Sanders tweeted after the last draft "Neglected and Rejected", in regard to how he felt about zero HBCU players being drafted in the 2021 NFL Draft. He wasn't the only one that noticed the problem, as many NFL alum spoke out, including Grambling State University legend Doug Williams, who said in an article in the Washington Post, "It's hard to believe that not one guy is worthy of being drafted...that's a travesty. Hopefully we can fix it."
In an effort to address the issue the NFL, spearheaded by Doug Williams has created the HBCU Legacy Bowl and the HBCU Combine. Washington Football Team Senior Advisor Doug Williams said in an interview with Good Morning Football, that he gets calls from HBCU coaches often about opportunities for their players but "his hands are tied", but he says "the NFL has put forth an effort to find the top players in the HBCUs (schools),...and we are going to use that to find these players and give them an opportunity to showcase, and that what makes this so exciting to me...". The Legacy Bowl will highlight some of the most talented players in all of HBCU football and so far, it boasts a pretty exciting roster, with the latest additions of three SWAC Champion Jackson State players in WR Keith Corbin, DL Antwan Owens, and DB Al Young. The Bowl game will feature representation from nearly every HBCU football program, including highlight reel players like Florida A&M's Bishop Bonnett, Southern University QB Ladarius Skelton, and Tennessee State QB Geremy Hickbottom. The support from NFL players like Jameis Winston, Bobby Wagner, Aaron Donald, Patrick Mahomes, and HBCU alum Terron Armstead has been key in solidifying the importance of the game and creating a buzz around the initiative. However, the question remains, will it work? Will it help to produce more drafted HBCU players?
The HBCU combine, which was held in Birmingham, Alabama last year did not increase the numbers of HBCU players drafted in its inarguable year, but that does not mean it did not have an impact. Players like Fayetteville State's Kion Smith and offensive weapon Jimmie Robinson of Bethune-Cookman, both took their opportunities and turned them into camp invites. Offensive Tackle Kion Smith had an impressive showing at the combine running a 5.22 in the 40-yard dash (fast for an offensive lineman), and Jimmie Robinson ran a 4.28 in the Combine's 40-yard dash. Robinson's time ranked second nationally amongst 2021 College Pro Day and NFL combine invites, behind only Anthony Schwartz of Auburn. Mr. Robinson was invited to rookie camp with the Bengals. Kion Smith, who may not have gotten an opportunity to perform for NFL scouts, otherwise, is currently a member of the Miami Dolphins practice squad.
For HBCU athletes simply looking for an opportunity to get into a camp and prove themselves, an opportunity of this magnitude is a dream. This is especially true for those who missed oppurtunities to be invited to games like the Senior Bowl, The East-West Shrine Game, and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. However, the question remains will these efforts result in more players from HBCUs being drafted this year? The excuses that blame the pandemic, cancelled seasons, and restricted access to players will not hold this season. Nearly 49,000 HBCU fans came out to see some of the best in HBCU football in this year's Celebration Bowl, more than the Peach Bowl.
In that game, players like Decobie Durant, put on a show, leaving Coach Deion Sanders with rave reviews. South Carolina State's Decobie Durant, Florida A&M Markquese Bell, and Jackson State's James Houston, all possess the talent to make NFL rosters. While they will be featured in more traditional senior All-Star games, The Legacy Bowl and the HBCU combine should highlight more players with the tools to contribute to an NFL roster. The argument of some who doubt the effectiveness of this exposure would rest on the result of Jimmie Robinson, A Third STATS Team FCS All-American Kick Returner, who was productive in college as a return specialist, and ran an official 4.28 40-yard dash and still went undrafted. Others believe that year two, increased talent across the board, more national attention, and more game film will change the end result.
What do you believe? Will the exposure increase the number of players drafted this season from HBCUs? We would like to hear from you, so please feel free to leave your comments below and we will respond and highlight some comments on our next show!