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HBCU Football

Players and coaches excited about the spotlight the HBCU combine brings 

Forty players get rare shot to showcase their talents in front of NFL evaluators

MOBILE, Ala. — Fayetteville State defensive end Keyshawn James has always dreamed of playing pro football. When James transferred from The Citadel, an NCAA Division I program in the Southern Conference, to Division II Fayetteville State after his freshman season, he spent a long time contemplating how playing there would impact his career goals.

Without the transfer portal and limited eligibility if going from one Division I institution to another, James transferred to Fayetteville State hoping to play without taking a year off and an opportunity to produce a lot of game film. James, 6-feet-3 and 280 pounds, has a football resume that includes two All-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) first-team selections and the reigning CIAA Defensive Player of the Year.

This weekend, James will be in Mobile along with 39 other players from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to perform in front of scouts at the NFL’s two-day HBCU combine on Friday and Saturday. This is the first NFL-sponsored HBCU combine, and is being held in partnership with the Reese’s Senior Bowl. The initial HBCU combine, which was announced in 2020, was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This is an opportunity he didn’t think was available to him years earlier.

“I think the combine is a great idea, to be honest, because HBCU football doesn’t get that type of exposure as the Pac-12, SEC or ACC,” James said. “This is a big deal because you want to get your name out there so that you can have a shot at getting your dream job. [The combine] is like applying and filling out a job application. I’m trying to get my resume out there [and] I’m trying to get in contact with the right people, so that way I have the best chance to get the job.”

South Carolina State cornerback Zafir Kelly, a member of the Bulldogs’ Celebration Bowl championship team, appreciates the combine opportunity, but can’t deny there is a chip on his shoulder. Kelly is one of three S.C. State players attending, along with Chad Gilchrist and Will Vereen. Kelly looks to former S.C. State linebacker Darius Leonard, now an All-Pro with the Indianapolis Colts, for motivation during the process.

“The draft process is stressful. I’m anxious. I really want to compete. I know I got more to prove so I really wanted to turn more heads. People sleep on us just because we went to HBCUs,” Kelly said. “Look at people like Darius Leonard. He’s changing the standard. Where you come from [doesn’t] dictate how well you play.”

The NFL draft process isn’t for Delaware State head coach Rod Milstead. Milstead, who played on the Hornets’ offensive line from 1988 to 1992, wasn’t selected for the East-West Shrine Bowl or the Senior Bowl, but he was fortunate enough to earn an invitation to the NFL draft combine. He was drafted later that year in the fifth round by the Dallas Cowboys.

Milstead spent his time at the combine comparing himself with linemen who went to powerhouse schools and walked away understanding there wasn’t a difference between him and them. Decades later, he preaches the message daily to his players.

“I understand the process. I understand how things are formulated. [The NFL combine] was a situation where you have to either put up or shut up,” Milstead said, “I [learned] there’s no difference between the guys who go to big schools and the guys who go to small schools. It’s how much do you want it and what are you willing to sacrifice to get it.”

Milstead believes showcasing HBCU talent was a long time coming. 

“Had this been done earlier, how many more [HBCU] players could have had this opportunity? We will never know,” Milstead said. “The biggest thing is that we can thank God for the blessing that we have now, but we will never know the answer to that question.”

For some coaches, the combine is a great first step to acknowledge the talent and athleticism in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and CIAA that they have witnessed for years. The NFL’s interest has provided positive boosts to recruitment, as well.

“By them creating [this combine], there shouldn’t be anybody that should say, ‘Well, I fell through the cracks.’ You will get a chance to get a look, so it’s big-time,” said Arkansas-Pine Bluff head coach Doc Gamble. “For us, it is always a delight to have NFL scouts at our practice. More people have been able to reach out to us and it’s been a big, great benefit in recruiting because we’ve been able to tap in some areas that were untapped.

“It’s been so huge so far as trying to recruit guys that you probably in the past wouldn’t have been able to get into that living room with them. [Seeing HBCU players on NFL rosters] is going to increase because we continue to recruit better student-athletes, high-quality guys that have high athletic ability.”

Following a full season of football and the increased presence of media and scouts on campus, Florida A&M head coach Willie Simmons believes some HBCU players should hear their names called in April, nearly a year after no HBCU players were drafted in 2021. Rattlers defensive back Markquese Bell has been invited to the NFL scouting combine, and defensive back Antwan Collier and offensive lineman Keenan Forbes will attend this weekend’s combine.

“I do know that there are a lot of draft-eligible guys and draft-worthy guys in this year’s draft class. So I’d love to see a couple of our guys get the opportunity to get their names called and a few of the guys that we played against this season. I wouldn’t be shocked if they got their names called,” Simmons said. “There are another couple Division II young men at the HBCU level that are really, really good players as well. So I think this could be a better year for the number of HBCU players that are drafted into the NFL this year.”

With the draft April 28-30, James is working hard to take advantage of every chance he gets to compete during the draft process and hopes to perform well at the combine and represent all talented Division II HBCU players.

“I’ve got to just pretty much just let my game do the talking. I play with a lot of passion and have a high motor. I’m relentless to the point where I show no mercy on the field,” James said. “Whatever I gotta do to get this job done, I am going to make sure I get it done. I’m just putting up my numbers and making sure that my stats are up to par, going to these bowl games and dominating. That’s one of those things that I feel like I could control. So always control what I can control.”

Players attending the combine

  • ​Dee Anderson, TE, Alabama A&M
  • Aqeel Glass, QB, Alabama A&M
  • Ezra Gray, RB, Alabama State
  • Felix Harper, QB, Alcorn State
  • Juwan Taylor, DB, Alcorn State
  • Solomon Wise, OLB, Alcorn State
  • Josh Wilkes, WR, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
  • KeShawn Williams, RB, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
  • Untareo Johnson, OLB, Bethune-Cookman
  • Jamal Savage, OT, Bethune-Cookman
  • Trey Gross, WR, Delaware State
  • Kwannah Kollie, WR, Delaware State
  • Elvin De La Rosa, DB, Fayetteville State
  • Keyshawn James, DE, Fayetteville State
  • Antwan Collier, DB, Florida A&M
  • Keenan Forbes, OG, Florida A&M
  • Shemar Bridges, WR, Fort Valley State
  • James Fagan, DT, Hampton
  • Jett Duffey, QB, Hampton
  • Keith Corbin, WR, Jackson State
  • Kingston Davis, RB, Miles College
  • Jerry Garner, OLB, Mississippi Valley State
  • Juwan Carter, QB, Norfolk State
  • Chris Myers, OLB, Norfolk State
  • Korey Banks, WR, North Carolina A&T
  • Ron Hunt, WR, North Carolina A&T
  • Jah-Maine Martin, RB, North Carolina A&T
  • Jawon Pass, QB, Prairie View A&M
  • Chad Gilchrist, ILB, South Carolina State
  • Zafir Kelly, DB, South Carolina State
  • Will Vereen, WR, South Carolina State
  • Marquis McClain, WR, Southern
  • Ladarius Skelton, QB, Southern
  • Cam Durley, OT, Tennessee State
  • Cory Rahman, DB, Tennessee State
  • Jonathan Giles, WR, Texas Southern
  • Jeff Proctor, RB, Texas Southern
  • Will Adams, DB, Virginia State
  • Javon Frazier, OLB, Virginia State
  • Zachary Wilcox, OT, Virginia 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."