During February’s HBCU Combine, NFL legend Doug Williams witnessed several players from historically Black colleges and universities with the talent to get drafted show off their skills for scouts from all 32 NFL teams.
For Williams, who co-founded the HBCU Legacy Bowl, a showcase for the top NFL draft-eligible HBCU players, the combine offered additional exposure for the draft prospects – and this year, the Legacy Bowl partnered with the NFL to host it.
That’s why Williams was shocked after Jackson State cornerback Isaiah Bolden was the only HBCU player who heard his name called in the 2023 NFL draft. The New England Patriots selected Bolden in the seventh round with the 245th pick.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that more than one athlete should have been drafted in the league,” Williams said.
“I just think it’s one of those situations where [scouts] are afraid to stand with a [HBCU] guy. You know, because they don’t want to be the one to pick the guy from a historically Black college and it doesn’t pan out.”
The lack of HBCU prospects drafted this year, particularly after increased efforts to showcase those players, has generated debate over the effectiveness of those initiatives, the perceived value of players from Black colleges and the opportunity that comes with being an undrafted free agent.
“Looking at all the HBCU free agent signings, I think that in itself tells the tale, because a lot of these teams, they rather draft somebody that went to a Power 5 that was a backup rather than draft a guy that started for two or three years,” Williams said.
Williams, who spent several years in NFL front offices, knows there’s no easy or quick fix for NFL ownership not selecting HBCU talent.
“It’s not something we can change. I mean, all we can do is preach about it. But if you’re not in the room when they’re looking at films or talking about players, then you’ve got nobody talking for you. There ain’t nothing you can do about it,” Williams said.
Nearly 20 HBCU players have signed with NFL teams as undrafted free agents, including Virginia State running back Darius Hagans, who participated in this year’s HBCU Legacy Bowl and the HBCU Combine.
Hagans believes his Legacy Bowl experience influenced the Indianapolis Colts’ decision to sign him.
“I feel like being able to go to those all-star games like the NFLPA [Collegiate] Bowl, as well as the HBCU Legacy Bowl, I had two different opportunities to showcase my talent, and against the other athletes that were selected to go to those games I feel like that just gave me a chance to elevate my status and raise my draft stock,” Hagans said. “It definitely elevated my chances to be selected by a team directly after the draft.”
Coaches refer to the 2022 draft class, which included four HBCU players, to recruits with dreams of playing professional football, but the lack of players selected this year could have future implications for the next crop of HBCU talent.
“It’s this year coming up, it’s gonna be a hard sell for HBCU coaches [in recruiting]. You can talk about the past, but as of late those guys haven’t been getting an opportunity to hear their name called,” said former Delaware State player turned head coach Rod Milstead, whom the Dallas Cowboys drafted in the fifth round of the 1992 NFL draft with the 121st pick. “You’re talking about four in 2022 and one in 2023. So what it’s going to be next year, zero? You really don’t know.”
Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons hopes his current players and future recruits won’t become discouraged.
“Just gonna keep grinding and the barrier has to be kicked down by someone. We’ve obviously felt that we made tremendous progress last year … but we got a sense of reality this year,” Simmons said.
“I just hope that the guys aren’t getting discouraged and are continuing to value, you know, the HBCU experience.”
Arkansas Pine-Bluff offensive lineman Mark Evans II and Florida A&M linebacker Isaiah Land were the only two HBCU players invited to the NFL scouting combine this year. Of the four HBCU prospects invited last year, three were selected on draft day.
This year neither Evans nor Land, a winner of the annual Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to the best defensive player in the FCS, heard their names called.
Evans’ pre-draft excitement subsided in the later rounds when teams began calling to inquire about signing him as an undrafted free agent.
He ultimately signed with the New Orleans Saints, joining fellow Golden Lions alumnus Terron Armstead, a third-round draft pick in 2013. Land signed with the Dallas Cowboys, joining former FAMU teammate Markquese Bell, who went undrafted last year.
“It is what it is. Even though I feel like more [HBCU players] should have been called, it won’t change the fact that there weren’t. Personally, I know my worth, and if others don’t, then that’s on them,” Evans told Andscape via text. “A lot of prospects, HBCU or not, [their] dreams and playing careers came to an end. I still have the chance to continue playing so I’m grateful for that. Everything happens for a reason, and God makes no mistakes.”
Esaias Guthrie was an all-conference player during his freshman year at Delaware State before transferring to Jackson State in January. He was the only sophomore listed on the Reese’s Senior Bowl HBCU prospect watchlist by Jim Nagy, a former NFL scout and the Senior Bowl’s executive director.
Guthrie felt disheartened watching HBCU players get passed over during this year’s draft.
“My initial response was, like, I ain’t got a shot at all, honestly. I’m just saying, like, you got the best defensive player in the FCS, not even just HBCU football, in the FCS period, and he didn’t get drafted. He went to the Senior Bowl, he got Jim Nagy speaking on him and then he went undrafted. This [was] crazy to me,” Guthrie said. “So, what do I do in order to get drafted? I got to go above and beyond.”
Despite his concerns, Guthrie, who has two more years in college to continue raising his draft stock, is hopeful about his future in the league.
“I think it definitely helps me just being on their radar early … not that I don’t have to do as much, but now I’m kind of working for my advantages and they’re already watching.
“If I have Jim Nagy’s attention, I know I got a few other people’s attention. So it definitely helps to have it early,” Guthrie said. “So now I just gotta stay consistent.”
In 1992, the Houston Oilers drafted Alabama State’s Eddie Robinson Jr. in the second round with the 50th pick.
Robinson, now head football coach at his alma mater, remembers an influx of HBCU players getting drafted in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. Fifteen HBCU players were selected in the first seven rounds of the 1992 NFL draft, the last draft to include 12 full rounds.
“If you were all-conference or if you were player of the year in the HBCUs, you would definitely want to get drafted in the first two or three rounds,” Robinson said. “So, seeing the way it is now, it’s a little disappointing. But I think we can still get it back to that part. Maybe not to that level but just getting more and more kids that opportunity.”
Robinson believes players who weren’t drafted may have an advantage over players drafted in late rounds, as undrafted players can sign with teams that offer them the best chance to make a roster. He knows performance in training camp is all that matters.
“Once you get there and camp, I mean, at that point all bets are off. You have your chance, that’s what you’ve been wanting since you were a little kid,” Robinson said. “So now you just have to take advantage of it and have that attitude of, ‘I’m not gonna get sent home. Whatever it takes me to make this team I’m going to do it and I’m gonna make the team.’ ”
Hagans, the Virginia State running back, plans to go into training camp with that mindset.
“There’s a lot of guys who got signed as undrafted free agents, and what we are gonna do is to continue to just push the narrative that we are just as good as those D-I schools and show that we can compete with those guys,” Hagans said. “We’re going to continue to change the narrative. We just got to show that we can dominate on that level as well. We got guys who [are] already doing it.”
All four draft picks and two additional undrafted HBCU players in last year’s rookie class, Bell and Norfolk State’s De’Shaan Dixon, made their respective teams’ active rosters during the season, and FAMU coach Simmons believes this year’s class will be on par with last year’s.
“I definitely feel strongly that there will be a lot of guys out of the undrafted class that will surprise NFL personnel and ultimately make the 53-man roster,” he said.
HBCU undrafted free agent signings:
Alabama State cornerback Keenan Isaac (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Alcorn State linebacker Claudin Cherelus (New York Jets)
Arkansas Pine-Bluff offensive lineman Mark Evans (New Orleans Saints)
Bowie State quarterback Dion “DJ” Golatt (Baltimore Ravens)
Bowie State defensive end Joshua Pryor (Washington Commanders)
Florida A&M linebacker Isaiah Land (Dallas Cowboys)
Florida A&M wide receiver Xavier Smith (Los Angeles Rams)
Fort Valley State running back Emanuel Wilson (Denver Broncos)
Hampton wide receiver Jadakis Bonds (San Francisco 49ers)
Jackson State linebacker Aubrey Miller (Miami Dolphins)
Jackson State wide receiver Dallas Daniels (Denver Broncos)
Jackson State cornerback De’Jahn Warren (Chicago Bears)
Lane defensive end Andrew Farmer (Los Angeles Chargers)
North Carolina A&T offensive lineman Ricky Lee (Carolina Panthers)
North Carolina Central offensive lineman Robert Mitchell (Cleveland Browns)
South Carolina State wide receiver Shaquan Davis (New Orleans Saints)
Southern defensive tackle Cam Peterson (Baltimore Ravens)
Virginia State running back Darius Hagans (Indianapolis Colts)
HBCU players invited to minicamps:
Bowie State defensive back Raymond Boone (Washington Commanders)
Hampton linebacker KeShaun Moore (Indianapolis Colts)