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HBCU athletes to look out for as the 2022 NFL combines and draft approach

No HBCU athletes were drafted in 2021; these eight could change that

Nearly a year after no historically black college and university (HBCU) football players were drafted, their coaches and players sought out to prove the 2021 NFL drafts were an anomaly.

Following the renewed interest in HBCUs and national attention attracted by the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) football culminating in the Cricket Celebration Bowl, they hope to see their players’ names called in April.

Jackson State coach Deion Sanders, who was initially vocal about HBCU players not being drafted, took the time to list statistics about players from the SWAC drafted ahead of Jackson State’s matchup 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 first- or second-round,” Sanders told the media during the bowl game’s news conference. “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 1960-99, however, 196 players were drafted with 55 of them going into first or second rounds. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

In the last five years, only 12 HBCU players were drafted into the NFL with the highest drafted player being S.C. State’s Darius Leonard in 2018. Leonard, drafted in the second round with the pick No. 36, went on to lead the NFL in total tackles his rookie season, earning a Pro Bowl nod and winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

“What happened? Is there a problem with us? Or with the scouts and with the league? I was just told by a person with a good ranking in the NFL that we only get six draftable players this year,” Sanders said. “That’s absurd. That’s idiotic. I played 14 years in the NFL and I worked on another 14 to 15 years with the NFL network close to the owners, executives and the television aspect of it. I know talent when I see talent. Every weekend I’m coaching on the sideline, I not only watch the dogs that I have, I’m watching kids on the opposing team that can flat-out play.

“You want to tell me with my eyes, my sight, my vision, with my accolades, that there’s only six players in the SWAC that are draftable. You gotta be crazy. If it happens, we need to show up and show out.”

HBCU players will get a chance to showcase their skills and talent in the first HBCU Legacy Bowl on Feb. 19 in New Orleans. Sponsored by the Black College Football Hall of Fame, nearly 100 players have been invited to attend, including most of the players highlighted below. Players will also get a chance to perform in front of scouts and team officials at an HBCU Combine on Jan. 21-22.

After a full season of HBCU football and the caliber of talent shown all season long, here are some HBCU players that you could see taken in April’s NFL draft:

Aqeel Glass — Alabama A&M

Alabama A&M Bulldogs quarterback Aqeel Glass passes the ball during a game against the Cincinnati Bearcats on Sept. 15, 2018, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.

Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In his final year of eligibility, 6-foot-4 Aqeel Glass followed up his impressive spring season at quarterback with a strong fall campaign, earning SWAC Offensive Player of the Year twice. Glass, known for his prototypical height and arm strength, threw for 3,568 passing yards, 36 touchdowns against seven interceptions, and finished with a career-high 63% completion percentage.

Decobie Durant — SC State

South Carolina State defensive back Decobie Durant (right) intercepts a pass intended for Clemson wide receiver Dacari Collins (left) in the second half of their game on Sept. 11 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Edward M. Pio Roda/AP Photo

Considered one of the MEAC’s top NFL prospects, Decobie Durant, a 5-10 defensive back, finished the season with 38 total tackles, 15 pass defenses, and three interceptions. Durant earned STATS Perform FCS Second Team All-America, MEAC Defensive Player of Year and Cricket Celebration Bowl Dennis Thomas Defensive MVP.

Markquese Bell — Florida A&M

Central Florida Knights quarterback Brandon Wimbush (left) runs with the ball as Florida A&M defensive back Markquese Bell (right) defends during the first half at Spectrum Stadium.

Douglas DeFelice/USA TODAY Sports

At 6-3 and 205 pounds, Markquese 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 First Team All-America selection, SWAC First Team All Defense and finished No. 3 in the SWAC with 95 total tackles on the season.

Isaiah Land — Florida A&M

Florida A&M linebacker Isaiah Land led the Southwestern Athletic Conference in sacks, tackles for loss and loss yards.

Florida A&M University

Isaiah Land, a 6-4 linebacker known for his speed, was named the SWAC Defensive Player of the Year. He led the conference in sacks (19), tackles for loss (25.5), and loss yards (147). Land’s play earned him first team All SWAC and STAT FCS First Team All American honors. He is also a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the FCS’ top defensive player.

Juwan Carter — Norfolk State

Norfolk State quarterback Juwan Carter is the MEAC Offensive Player of the Year.

Norfolk State

Juwan Carter, a 6-1 senior quarterback, was named MEAC Offensive Player of the Year after leading the MEAC with 2,511 passing yards, 21 touchdown passes, and a 63.8% completion percentage. Carter is also Norfolk State’s all-time leading passer with 9,271 career passing yards.

James Houston — Jackson State

Jackson State’s James Houston (left) rushes the passer against Louisiana Monroe.

Jackson State University

James Houston, the former Florida Gators defensive lineman, anchored the Jackson State defense, finishing with a team-high 16.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss. He also led the SWAC in forced fumbles with seven. Houston was voted as the SWAC Newcomer of the year, SWAC First Team and earned STATS Perform FCS First Team All-America honors. Houston was invited to the NFLPA Bowl.

Aubrey Miller Jr. — Jackson State

Linebacker Aubrey Miller Jr. (right) of the Jackson State Tigers hits wide receiver Jeremiah Hixon (left) of the Alabama State Hornets during the game at New ASU Stadium on March 20 in Montgomery, Alabama.

Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Aubrey Miller Jr., one of Jackson State’s First Team All SWAC selections at linebacker, finished the season leading the conference with total tackles with 109. Miller also added 11.5 tackles for loss including 6.5 sacks.

Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim — Alabama A&M

Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim, named to the First Team All SWAC offense at wide receiver, led the SWAC in receiving yards with 1,008 on the season. The 6-1 junior was Glass’ top target for the season, averaging 100.8 yards a game, finishing No. 3 in the SWAC for receptions and eight touchdowns.

Honorable mentions: Running back Jah-Maine Martin (N.C. A&T), defensive end Jordan Lewis (Southern), defensive lineman Antwan Owens (Jackson State), wide receiver Justin Smith (Norfolk State), quarterback Felix Harper (Alcorn), running back Ezra Gray (Alabama State), offensive lineman Matthew Derks (Delaware State), wide receiver Jadakis Bonds (Hampton), linebacker Keonte Hampton (Jackson State), offensive lineman Mark Evans II (Arkansas-Pine Bluff), offensive lineman Justin Redd (Norfolk State), running back Caleb Johnson (Mississippi Valley State), running back Bishop Bonnett (Florida A&M), wide receiver Odieu Hilaire (Alabama A&M), defensive back CJ Holmes (Jackson State), offensive tackle Ja’Tyre Carter (Southern), defensive lineman De’Shaan Dixon (Norfolk State) and linebacker Untareo Johnson (Bethune-Cookman).

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."