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HBCU Football

These top HBCU football players should be on everyone’s watch list this season

Some haven’t played since 2019, so they are eager to return to the gridiron

We are nearing Week 0 of the college football season, which means it’s time to identify top players to look for and await the renewal of classic rivalries.

Coronavirus cancellations brought lots of change and opportunities the last two years for historically Black colleges and universities and players, so the appetite for football is palpable.

The first weekend of the season kicks off with the Cricket MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Atlanta, where two of the top players will be showcased: quarterback Felix Harper of Alcorn State and defensive back Stephen Stokes of North Carolina Central.

With changes in how players can use their names, images and likenesses, they are now not only playing for school records, rings and bragging rights, but to also raise their profiles and elevate their brands.

Juwan Carter, Norfolk State

Norfolk State quarterback Juwan Carter.

Norfolk State University

Carter did not play in the spring because Norfolk State opted out of the season in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). In 2019, Carter led the MEAC in total passing yards with 2,631, had 2,856 yards of total offense and a 60.5 completion percentage. His 23 passing touchdowns were third-most in a season in school history. He enters 2021 as the MEAC preseason offensive player of the year.

D’Angelo Durham, Savannah State

Savannah State Tigers running back D’Angelo Durham.

Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Durham finished second in rushing in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) with 1,029 yards on 192 carries for Savannah State in 2019. He led the SIAC with 12 touchdowns. Durham was named this year’s preseason offensive player of the year.

Aqeel Glass, Alabama A&M

Alabama A&M quarterback Aqeel Glass.

Alabama A&M Athletics

Glass was the spring 2021 Southwestern Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year at quarterback after throwing for 1,355 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. He was one of the 16 finalists for the Walter Payton Award. Among other awards, he won the Deacon Jones Trophy as the Black College Football Player of the Year, was All-SWAC first team, won the SWAC championship game MVP and was named SWAC 2021 preseason player of the year. Glass led the Bulldogs to their first SWAC championship in 15 years, and their first undefeated campaign since 1966.

Ezra Gray, Alabama State

Alabama State running back Ezra Gray.

Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Gray came off a sensational spring season after leading the SWAC in rushing. He finished with 436 yards on 84 carries in five games. Gray averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. He rushed for a career-high 195 yards against Jackson State and another 100-yard game against Alabama A&M. He was named first-team All-SWAC and a BOXTOROW All-American.

Felix Harper, Alcorn State

Alcorn State quarterback Felix Harper.

Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Harper, a two-year starter at quarterback, led Alcorn State to the Celebration Bowl in 2019. He won the 2019 offensive player of the year in the SWAC and is seventh on the program’s all-time touchdown list. In his last performance at the Celebration Bowl, he threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns and ran for two additional scores. Alcorn State and Harper did not compete in the spring SWAC season.

Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim, Alabama A&M

Alabama A&M receiver Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim.

Alabama A&M University

Ibrahim finished with 24 catches, 338 yards and three touchdowns in four games in the spring. He earned six All-American honors in two seasons, including four this past season, a haul that included BOXTOROW preseason and postseason and HERO Sports All-American. Ibrahim was named an American Football Coaches Association honoree as a sophomore wideout.

Jordan Lewis, Southern University

Southern University defensive end/linebacker Jordan Lewis.

Southern University

Lewis, at 6 feet 3 inches and 195 pounds, was the 2020 Buck Buchanan Award winner as the top defensive player in the FCS. As a linebacker/defensive lineman, he was also the SWAC Defensive Player of the Year with 127 tackles. He had 15 tackles for a loss and was the two-time SWAC defensive player of the week. He has been honored as an All-American by the Associated Press and FCS ADA Defensive Player of the Year.

“It shows a lot about his character,” said interim coach Jason Rollins. “His playmaking ability to rush off the line and escape the blocking scheme to get into the backfield and make plays is special. But Jordan’s development has been consistent and thorough since he has been at Southern. We are very excited and happy for him. Not only is Jordan a great football player, but he is a great person.”

Jah-Maine Martin, N.C. A&T

North Carolina A&T running back Jah-Maine Martin.

Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports

Martin, a running back, and the North Carolina A&T Aggies did not play in the spring season. Martin last played in 2019 and he finished with seven 100-yard games, including one 200-yard game, the second-most in a single season in school history. Martin’s 2019 campaign broke school records in rushing touchdowns, average yards per carry and total touchdowns. Martin’s best performance was 299 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries at Charleston Southern.

Devon Starling, Tennessee State 

Tennessee State running back Devon Starling.

Tennessee State University

Starling had 647 yards and three touchdowns on 124 carries in the spring. The freshman running back averaged 5.2 yards per carry and 92.4 yards per game. Starling led all Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) rushers and ranked 16th nationally. Starling had three 100-yard games with a career-high 149 yards against Murray State. Starling was named OVC Newcomer of the Week after performances against UT Martin and Southeast Missouri.

Stephen Stokes, N.C. Central

North Carolina Central defensive back Stephen Stokes.

N.C. Central University

Stokes finished the 2019 season with 62 tackles, seven hits for a loss, one sack, two interceptions, six pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. Stokes was selected as one of the 22 college football players in the nation as a member of the 2020 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.

Calvin Sykes is a graduate student in sports science at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, Fla. A native of Miami, Sykes was the sideline reporter for the Florida A&M Rattlers football from 2018-2020, program director for the school’s radio station WANM FM 90.5, and has written for HBCU GameDay.