HBCU players got on NFL’s radar this season. Now they will see whether it matters.

Will Adams, who played safety at Virginia State, works out a Richmond gym. Last year no NFL team selected a player from a historically Black college or university, but Adams could be among a handful of HBCU players drafted this week. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Will Adams, who played safety at Virginia State, works out a Richmond gym. Last year no NFL team selected a player from a historically Black college or university, but Adams could be among a handful of HBCU players drafted this week. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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As he strode across a football field on the campus of South Alabama in Mobile in January, Will Adams saw trappings foreign to his career at Virginia State. Cameramen filmed his movements. Photographers snapped pictures. Scouts wearing NFL logos packed the sidelines. His stomach churned — he was both nervous and star-struck.

“I’m not used to having those type of eyes around me,” Adams said later. “Coming from an HBCU Division II, we don’t have a whole lot of that type of exposure.”

Adams had arrived for the HBCU combine, an inaugural showcase for prospects from historically Black colleges and universities, a class of player the NFL had neglected in recent drafts. He and 38 other prospects would perform sprints, jumps and lifts, trying to impress NFL teams that probably had overlooked them in the fall.

For years, family members had told Adams to be patient and his time would come. He sensed it had. At the end of one shuttle run, Adams glanced at the sidelines and saw scouts, with bulged eyes, comparing stopwatches. When he finished, evaluators encircled him and asked for his contact information. Adams realized his life might have just changed.

“I was never one of those guys who were in the spotlight,” Adams said. “At that moment, I kind of was. I was thinking, ‘These guys finally noticed me after all this time.’ ”

In recent years, Adams may not have been noticed at all. Last year, the draft’s 259 picks elapsed without a single player from an HBCU being selected. Only four signed contracts as undrafted free agents. The dearth of HBCU players granted professional opportunity dismayed HBCU coaches who believed their programs had talent worthy of being drafted but lacked the requisite attention from NFL teams.

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In the past year, partly in response and partly because the ebbing of the pandemic allowed for changes that would have come sooner, the NFL and other advocates boosted evaluators’ awareness of players from HBCUs.

The NFL hosted the first HBCU combine, with representatives from all 32 teams studying players from 22 schools. The NFL partnered with the Black College Football Hall of Fame for the Legacy Bowl, an all-star game and week of practice in New Orleans solely for prospects from HBCUs. At the NFL’s urging, traditional college all-star games such as the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Bowl extended more invitations to HBCU players.

The NFL wanted to create more “touchpoints” between its teams and HBCU players, said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. The pandemic played a role in no HBCU players being drafted last year, canceling 2020 seasons for smaller programs and pushing teams toward safe picks. Still, many believed HBCUs, which have produced Hall of Famers such as Jerry Rice and Walter Payton and contemporary stars such as Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, had been unfairly overlooked.

“We were going to have success in this area,” Vincent said. “Why? Because we were intentional. When is the last time you saw an HBCU pro day covered on television? It happened. That’s the exposure and the awareness that the student-athlete needs and the institution needs to generate interest.”

Few players took advantage more than Adams, a four-year starter at free safety who immediately vaulted onto scouts’ radars with his combine performance. He could be taken in a late round, and if not he would be coveted as an undrafted free agent. He is not alone. Southern offensive lineman Ja’Tyre Carter, Jackson State edge rusher James Houston, South Carolina State cornerback Cobie Durant, Florida A&M safety Markquese Bell and Alabama A&M quarterback Aqeel Glass could hear their names called next weekend.

Doug Williams, who attended Grambling and became the first Black quarterback to win the Super Bowl, last year called the absence of HBCU players in the draft “a travesty.” As a trustee and co-founder of the Black College Football Hall of Fame, he helped organize the Legacy Bowl and attended practices all week. He believes three to five HBCU players should be drafted, with at least 10 signing with teams for training camp as draftees or undrafted free agents.

“Anything short of that, to be honest with you, would be a disappointment,” Williams said.

The past year’s efforts ensured that NFL teams would see more HBCU players. Whether those teams act on that knowledge will be determined next weekend.

“We did better,” Vincent said. “We made progress. Now the real report card comes.”

Looking for attention

Before the 2018 season, Evan Jones became the assistant defensive backs coach at Virginia State, a Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association program in Petersburg, about 20 miles south of Richmond. As he surveyed his new players, he knew immediately that Adams was different.

“The first time I saw him play and move around, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, how did this kid end up at Virginia State?’ ” Jones said. “Everything about him said he should have played D-I football.”

Adams had slipped through the recruiting cracks. At Hermitage High, a teammate beat him out for starting safety in his junior season. Adams didn’t attend the camps that provide exposure and boost recruiting rankings. “I kind of was invisible,” he said.

Adams spoke to some Division I coaches about walking on, but he felt most comfortable at Virginia State, his father’s alma mater. “I just wanted to go where I was wanted,” Adams said. “It was just a different feeling, just being in a different environment but also familiar. That just made me feel comfortable.”

After a redshirt season, Adams became one of Virginia State’s best players. He started as a freshman and earned all-CIAA honors. He modeled his game after that of Jamal Adams, the Pro Bowl selection, playing as the Trojans’ last line of defense while also darting forward with aggression. He would line up 12 yards off the ball and still tackle running backs for losses. In his last two seasons, Adams was a team captain.

Adams studied electrical engineering — “I don’t want to settle for something simple,” he said — and graduated in four years. Last year, he earned a master’s degree in project management. Wanting to protect himself from the coronavirus and save money on room and board last season, Adams lived at home in Henrico and commuted 45 minutes each way. He was never late and often was one of the first Trojans on the field for practice — even the workouts that started at 6 a.m. He would try to take every rep in practice and beg to stay in games during blowouts.

“Sometimes you had to slow him down to make sure he didn’t hurt himself,” said Jones, who became Virginia State’s primary defensive backs coach. “You talk about a kid that loves the game. I’ve been around very few players that I can say they truly love the game. He’s one of them.”

Still, Adams wondered whether the NFL would notice. He watched NFL teams pass over every HBCU prospect during last year’s draft, which left Tennessee State guard Lachavious Simmons, a 2020 seventh-round pick by the Chicago Bears, as the lone HBCU player drafted in the past two years.

“I definitely felt a little bit discouraged going into my senior season,” Adams said.

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He felt buoyed by the attention others brought to HBCU football, especially Jackson State Coach Deion Sanders, a former NFL star who constantly implored NFL teams to recognize the high level of talent in HBCU programs. Vincent said a recent spate of former NFL players who have become head coaches at HBCUs — including Eddie George at Tennessee State and Reggie Barlow, who recently left Virginia State for the XFL’s San Antonio franchise — carried significant influence within the league.

“That former player, that legend, he understands what NFL talent looks like,” Vincent said. “The calls were coming like, ‘Hey, man, I got a left tackle down here.’ [Sanders] would call all day: ‘T, I got a wideout here. I got a guard here. I got a DB.’ You were like, we got to get some exposure to them.”

As the league studied how NFL teams scout HBCUs in the aftermath of last year’s draft, it found “there wasn’t a lot of boots on the ground attending some of their games,” Vincent said. HBCU schools were also not part of the NFL’s video exchange system, which provides all 32 teams with a database of college game film. The league added the four largest HBCU conferences.

“That was a simple, simple win,” Vincent said. “That’s where the evaluation actually begins. You’re measured on your game and your game video. Not being part of that video exchange system didn’t allow the teams to have access.”

In Williams’s view, gathering players at the HBCU combine helped eliminate preconceived notions that scouts might have held. Attending pro days or practices at smaller schools with fewer resources, Williams said, can create a negative impression, consciously or otherwise.

“Rather than going to the school and grading the school,” Williams said, “you get a chance to grade the kid.”

‘Give me a chance’

When he first walked into Jaguar Training Center in Mobile, Adams felt butterflies. He had prepared for the moment since his season ended in November, working out five days a week with a personal trainer in Richmond. “Seeing my dream manifest into a reality, it was just very overwhelming for a moment,” Adams said.

Through his jitters, Adams also felt confident. He knew all he had to do was replicate his numbers from training. Once the initial nerves dissipated, “I was already flowing and in the zone,” he said. After someone told him his 40.5-inch vertical was the highest of the day, Adams thought, “I’m really doing it right now.”

By the end of the workout, Adams had produced measurements that stood out in Mobile — and would have stood out had he been in Columbus, Ohio, or Tuscaloosa, Ala. Adams ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds, a smidgen faster than the draft’s top safety prospect, Kyle Hamilton of Notre Dame. Adams’s broad jump measured 10 feet 3 inches, which would have been the eighth best among safeties at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 21 times, which would have been the third most. And his vertical leap was a full inch higher than what any safety in Indianapolis managed.

“That they didn’t have anybody drafted from an HBCU the previous year to now, they’re putting all this focus on HBCU players, it couldn’t have been a better time for me,” Adams said. “I felt very fortunate to be given any opportunity. Just to give me a chance to show what I can do, that’s all I ever ask for.”

The workout prompted a whirlwind. Representatives from two NFL teams called Jones, seeking background information. Others called Barlow and his defensive coordinator. Adams conducted an interview on NFL Network and chatted with team executives.

“It’s definitely been a transition — just transitioning from being a nobody to folks knowing my name and ESPN talking about me, people writing articles,” Adams said. “I’m enjoying the process every step of the way, from the ups and downs, the challenges. Just to be experiencing this is a dream come true.”

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No matter what happens next weekend, Adams will look back and feel pride that he took part in the first HBCU combine and the first Legacy Bowl. He will be spared the most painful part for so many snubbed HBCU players. It wasn’t going undrafted — it was not knowing whether they were not good enough or just not seen enough.

“We all want that athletic closure,” Vincent said. “But the closure can’t be because no one knew who I was. It can be that they never came to my practice and watched my practice. They never saw my game footage. All of these things happened for these young men this year. That’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.”

Some teams still require prodding. Last month, Sanders read off a list of teams — the Broncos, Dolphins, Texans, Bills, Buccaneers, Ravens, Panthers, Browns, Vikings and Eagles — that didn’t attend Jackson State’s pro day. “Where art thou?” Sanders asked, looking into a camera for a video posted on social media. “You could have showed up a little bit.”

Sanders smiled into the camera and let those teams know they would come soon enough. Led by Sanders at Jackson State, HBCU coaches have won recruiting battles for elite high school prospects for the first time in a while. Running back Travis Hunter, by consensus the top recruit in the country, flipped at the last minute from Florida State to Jackson State.

“What we’ve done and what has happened this year, the most important thing is to keep it going that way and make it happen every year,” Williams said. “There are going to be players every year that deserve an opportunity. We can’t quit today because we feel pretty good about what’s going to happen this year. If we do or we don’t get players drafted, we still got to keep pushing.”

Adams has not finalized his draft plans. He figures he will throw a small party for family. He hopes to hear his phone ring before the seventh round ends, one NFL team hopefully making his football dreams come true. But if he is not picked and instead signs as a free agent, that will not deter him.

“That’s all I need — just one chance, one opportunity to seize everything I got,” Adams said. “If and when somebody does give me that opportunity, I’m going to take full advantage of it. I promise it’s going to be one of the best decisions that they ever made.”