“Don’t get frustrated,” Oliver told Mills. “All you need is an opportunity.”
In this year’s draft, players from historically Black colleges and universities found themselves stuck between frustration and opportunity. The NFL has long looked to HBCU schools as a pipeline for talent, from Hall of Famers such as Mel Blount and Walter Payton to current all-pro linebacker Darius Leonard. Of the 259 players drafted this past weekend, zero came from HBCU programs.
The absence of HBCU players in the draft stemmed from factors large and small, starting with the coronavirus pandemic postponing fall seasons to the spring or canceling them altogether. Even acknowledging the hurdles, HBCU coaches and advocates were surprised and disheartened.
“It’s hard to believe that not one guy is worthy of being drafted,” said Washington Football Team senior adviser Doug Williams, a Grambling alum and the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. “That, to me, that’s a travesty. Hopefully we can fix it.”
In an Instagram post Monday evening, Jackson State Coach Deion Sanders, whose September hiring brought a wave of attention to HBCU football, wrote HBCU players had been “neglected and rejected” and called on HBCU programs to work together.
“I witnessed a multitude of kids we played against that were more than qualified to be drafted,” Sanders wrote. “My prayers are that this won’t EVER happen again. Get yo knife out my back and fight with me not against me!”
HBCU prospects could still make NFL rosters in the summer. Immediately after the draft, Grambling tackle David Moore (Carolina Panthers), Florida A&M tackle Calvin Ashley (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), North Carolina A&T cornerback Mac McCain (Denver Broncos) and Mills signed free agent contracts.
None of them being drafted still stung. More than 40 players attended the first HBCU combine in April, which organizers hoped would improve last year’s draft showing, when Tennessee State guard Lachavious Simmons, a seventh-round pick by the Chicago Bears, was the only HBCU player taken. The NFL drafted four HBCU players in 2019, when the Houston Texans made tackle Tytus Howard of Alabama State the first first-round pick from an HBCU since 2008.
“You can go back as far as you like, from Jerry Rice to Tarik Cohen,” North Carolina A&T Coach Sam Washington said. “The quality of the athlete is definitely within our league. Them being seen or not being seen, it happened. For what reasons, I have not figured that part out. But the fact is that it happened.”
Smaller programs across the board suffered in the draft from the pandemic, which canceled fall seasons, eliminated pro day workouts and decreased travel for NFL scouts. Faced with uncertainty, NFL front offices relied on powerhouse programs more than usual. Only five players from the Football Championship Subdivision were chosen, the lowest since 1993, along with two Division II players and one from Division III.
“I think that [the pandemic] played a huge role in the lack of players represented from our conference and also from HBCU football,” Grambling Coach Broderick Fobbs said. “There’s plenty of guys who have the ability to be drafted and should have been drafted. But I think when it boils down to it, these teams were not able to do as thorough a search as they normally are. … But yes, it is a little bit of a disappointment. I don’t think it’s anything personal. People are trying to fill their rosters with the best players that they can and also with no-brainers. The pandemic played a huge role in eliminating a lot of those diamonds in the rough.”
The absence of any HBCU players indicated HBCU schools were hurt disproportionately.
“Ain’t no question they’re affected a little different than other programs,” Williams said. “That still don’t mean they can’t have one or two” players chosen.
Last year, 29 players from HBCU schools started the season on an active NFL roster or practice squad, according to HBCU Gameday. Leonard, whom the Indianapolis Colts drafted in the second round out of South Carolina State in 2018, has been named defensive rookie of the year and made two all-pro first teams in his first three seasons.
“I don’t know if a lot of scouts go into the Black schools,” Williams said. “If they see somebody on a Black college campus, they usually judge the school and not the player. I think they need to get into judging the player and not the school. But really there ain’t no answer to it. … I wish I could give you a good answer. But it’s hard to give a good answer right now. It’s hard to see not one player from a Black college get picked.”
All 32 NFL teams sent a scout to North Carolina Central to gather information about Mills, Oliver said, but Oliver wondered how decision-makers ultimately used the evaluations. For years, Williams and James Harris, another former Grambling quarterback, worked in high-ranking personnel positions. New Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes graduated from North Carolina A&T, but otherwise NFL executives from HBCUs are a rarity.
“Without us having an advocate in those meetings in the front office, it kind of puts you behind the 8 ball,” Oliver said.
Oliver pointed out that the HBCU players with draftable grades this year played offensive line and cornerback, two of the deepest positions in the draft. Many talented players returned for the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted after fall seasons were postponed or canceled. “You’ll see a lot of guys next year with draftable grades,” Oliver said.
The recent change to college football’s transfer rules, which now allow players to transfer from one Football Bowl Subdivision program to another without forcing them to sit out a year, inadvertently affected the talent level at HBCU programs, Fobbs said.
A handful of possible NFL prospects would trickle into HBCU programs because they wanted to play right away after transferring and wanted to be “somewhere where they love their coach, or they love their institution, or they love being around people that look like them,” Fobbs said.
Those players can now move to another major program without penalty and receive larger cost-of-attendance benefits at higher levels. Fobbs said players now approach what once was an emotional decision as a business decision.
“I think the rules have been set up against us,” Fobbs said. “It’s great for our kids to get the opportunities, but the institutions have suffered. We’re not able to acquire those players.”
The lack of thorough evaluation led in some cases to players being overlooked or misevaluated. Fobbs expected Moore would be taken between Round 3 and Round 5. Washington was baffled when he read a scouting report of McCain that listed accelerating after making cuts as a flaw.
“That’s his strength,” Washington said. “Had they been able to come on campus and see it, they would have known. … If they’re going to say that’s his weakness, they’re going to be so disappointed when he makes all-pro.”
Williams is trying to enhance HBCU players’ exposure to the NFL. The Black College Football Hall of Fame, of which Williams is a trustee, created a collegiate all-star game for HBCU players with the NFL’s backing that will debut next year. The Legacy Bowl will be played next February in New Orleans to showcase overlooked players and allow NFL scouts the chance to evaluate roughly 100 HBCU players at one time.
Despite his disappointment, Williams said he would chalk this year up to the pandemic and move on. He did not attribute the lack of selections to racism, pointing to the confluence of Black quarterbacks in the NFL. But he also believes HBCU players do not receive the same amount of attention from the NFL as other programs.
“I’m not surprised, because this has happened before,” Williams said. “ … You keep hoping things get better. That’s where I am right now. I’m hoping with the combine and the Legacy Bowl we give the NFL an opportunity to see guys in a whole new light.”