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How many HBCU players will get the call on NFL draft day?

After no HBCU athletes were drafted in 2021, these players have helped put the NFL on notice

Players from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are back on the radar of NFL scouts after no HBCU players were drafted in 2021. Of the 259 selections in the 2021 NFL draft, zero came from HBCU programs, and only four HBCU prospects signed as free agents.

After the backlash over last year’s snub, the NFL is once again looking to HBCUs as a pipeline for what some consider untapped talent. Some experts predict as many as seven HBCU players could go in the 2022 NFL draft. The last time as many as five HBCU players were selected was 2008.

In January, the league partnered with the Senior Bowl to host the first HBCU combine, allowing 39 HBCU prospects to participate with NFL scouts and general managers in attendance. A month later, the Black College Football Hall of Fame, led by former Grambling State and NFL quarterbacks Doug Williams and James “Shack” Harris, hosted the inaugural HBCU Legacy Bowl. This all-star game gave NFL scouts another opportunity to evaluate top HBCU talent. At the NFL’s urging, traditional college all-star games such as the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Bowl invited more HBCU players than ever before.

In March, the NFL invited four HBCU players to the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine: Florida A&M defensive back Markquese Bell, South Carolina State cornerback Decobie Durant, Fayetteville State defensive back Joshua Williams and Southern University offensive lineman Ja’Tyre Carter. All four saw their draft stocks rise after their pro day and combine performances.

“It’s a blessing to be in this predicament right now,” Carter told Andscape. “Just to have the opportunity to be known by the NFL and the scouts, especially coming from an HBCU, is a gift. I never knew I’d get this far, so it’s just a blessing to know that I might have a chance to get drafted.”

Only 12 HBCU players were drafted into the NFL in the last five years, the highest selection being former Alabama State tackle Tytus Howard, picked 23rd overall in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft by the Houston Texans. In his three NFL seasons, Howard has started in every game he’s played (37). Former South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard, taken with the 36th pick of the 2018 draft, led the NFL in tackles his rookie season, won Defensive Rookie of the Year, is a three-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro.

“I think if you keep living, you’re going to see things go in cycles,” said Norfolk State coach Dawson Odums, who hopes his top defensive lineman De’Shaan Dixon will go in later rounds. “It always comes back around, you just gotta keep positioning yourself, keep getting the necessary talented players and giving them opportunity and a platform to showcase that talent. I think this year, we may have a few guys drafted and that’s gonna continue to open doors for others. Just like the ones who came before, now the ones that are getting drafted this year, it’s all about timing.”

Jackson State coach Deion Sanders spoke publicly in 2021 about HBCU players not being taken in that year’s draft and the talent often overlooked from the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) ahead of his team’s matchup against South Carolina State in the Cricket Celebration Bowl.

“Over the last 20 years, over 26 players from the SWAC have been drafted into the NFL. Of those 26, only four have been drafted first or second round,” Sanders said. “But what you gotta understand is, that’s why eyeballs are gone. They’re not here, because of the talent level and the lack thereof of scouting, recruiting and understanding. Now check this out: Between 1960 and ’99, however, 196 players were drafted, with 55 of them going in first or second rounds. That’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to get back to that level of recognition.”

How many HBCU players will be taken in the 2022 draft? Here are six players you need to know before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell starts the clock:

Markquese Bell, safety — Florida A&M

The Bridgeton, New Jersey, native is expected to be the first HBCU player selected in the 2022 NFL draft. At 6-feet-3 and 205 pounds, Bell gave the Florida A&M Rattlers versatility on the defensive side of the ball with his ability to cover players downfield and make stops against the run. Bell earned Stats Perform first-team All-America and SWAC first-team All-Defense selections last season and finished third in the SWAC with 95 total tackles. Scouts rave about his athleticism and project him to go as high as the third round.

Ja’Tyre Carter, offensive lineman — Southern University

Following LSU’s pro day on April 6 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, NFL scouts rushed a few miles down the road to Southern University to watch Ja’Tyre Carter’s pro day performance, with New Orleans Saints offensive line coach Doug Marrone running the drills. Carter didn’t disappoint. At 6-feet-3 and 311 pounds, Carter recorded a 34.5-inch vertical jump and improved his 40-yard dash to 5.02, faster than his 5.13 at the NFL combine. Carter showed his versatility at the Senior Bowl, moving from left tackle to left guard with ease. Carter is considered a late Day 2 pick or an early Day 3 pick for a team looking to bolster its offensive line.

Joshua Williams, cornerback — Fayetteville State

Projected as a possible Day 3 selection, Joshua Williams is a tall cornerback with great foot speed. Standing 6-feet-3 and running a 4.47 40-yard dash, Williams has great length to play man-to-man, though the rangy defender excelled in zone coverage. Along with Carter, Williams has been one of the fastest-rising HBCU prospects in this year’s draft class. In his three years at Fayetteville State, Williams recorded 79 total tackles (55 solos), 4 tackles for loss, 5 interceptions and 22 pass deflections.

Decobie Durant, defensive back — South Carolina State

Decobie Durant is considered one of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s top NFL prospects. The 5-foot-10 defensive back earned MEAC Defensive Player of the Year honors with 38 total tackles, 15 pass defenses and 3 interceptions last season. Durant, a 2021 Stats Perform FCS second-team All-American and the Cricket Celebration Bowl Defensive MVP, increased his draft stock by running a 4.38 40-yard dash, and scouts like his ball skills. Durant profiles as a late Day 3 selection.

James Houston IV, pass-rusher — Jackson State

The former Florida Gators defensive lineman anchored Jackson State’s defense, finishing with a team-high 16.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss. Houston also led the SWAC in forced fumbles with seven. Houston earned SWAC Newcomer of the Year, All-SWAC first-team defense and Stats Perform FCS first-team All-American honors. At 6-feet-1 and 225 pounds, Houston increased his stock as a pass-rusher and linebacker at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and East-West Shrine Bowl. He is expected to be a late-round pick.

Aqeel Glass, quarterback — Alabama A&M

In his final year of eligibility, the 6-foot-5 Aqeel Glass followed up his impressive spring season at quarterback with a strong fall campaign, earning SWAC Offensive Player of the Year. Glass, known for his prototypical height and arm strength, threw for 3,568 yards, 36 touchdowns and 7 interceptions, and finished with a career-high 63% completion percentage. No HBCU quarterback has been selected in the NFL draft since the Minnesota Vikings took Tarvaris Jackson out of Alabama State in 2006. Glass hopes to break that streak and projects as a late-round pick or priority free agent.

Other notables who could get drafted: Defensive back Will Adams (Virginia State), running back Ezra Gray (Alabama State), wide receiver Dee Anderson (Alabama A&M), wide receiver Jequez Ezzard (Howard/Sam Houston State), offensive lineman Keenan Forbes (Florida A&M), running back Jah-Maine Martin (N.C. A&T), wide receiver Marquis McClain (Southern), wide receiver Keith Corbin III (Jackson State), offensive lineman Cam Durley (Tennessee State) and defensive lineman De’Shaan Dixon (Norfolk State).

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."