Four players from HBCUs were selected in the NFL Draft, representing progress for a league struggling to bring more such players into the league. But is it enough?
With the NFL Draft over and four players from HBCUs selected, the league could argue that its efforts to bring more exposure to HBCU prospects was a success — there was only one HBCU alum selected in each of the previous two drafts combined.
The NFL had been trying to help HBCUs get more exposure since 2020, but COVID-19 delayed the inaugural HBCU Combine. The Combine finally took place earlier this year, with 42 HBCU players descending on Mobile, AL ahead of the Senior Bowl. And while the NFL may look at the four players selected as a step in the right direction, only one player invited to the HBCU combine was drafted.
HBCU athletes who participated in the combine could also argue the conditions for their workouts were much different than the stabilized environment in Lucas Oil Stadium, home to the traditional combine. Despite Mobile typically being between 47 to 60 degrees near the end of January, the temperature was a blistering 28 degrees at the time most of the athletes were working out.
There are multiple cases where exposure and scouting can be questioned. An example of this is the case of Joshua Williams, a cornerback from Fayetteville State University. Williams was invited to the HBCU Combine but declined the invitation in favor of attending the actual NFL Combine a month later in Indianapolis.
“Not to downplay the HBCU Combine, but the HBCU Combine was going to do the same things I did at the NFL Combine with less coverage,” he told Boardroom before the draft.
Williams was the first HBCU player to come off the draft board, going to the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth round.
Another cornerback, South Carolina State’s Decobie Durant, came after Williams. In Durant’s case, things are much different. He was not invited to the HBCU Combine, the Senior Bowl or the NFL Combine, but still found his way onto an NFL team. The same can be said for Jackson State linebacker James Houston IV, who the Lions took in the fourth round.
Jackson State has been a focal point of HBCU football ever since Deion Sanders stepped foot on campus. One of Sanders’ main goals is to bring HBCU prospects the exposure that can help get them to the next level. Before the draft, Coach Prime told NFL Network, “my desire is seven to 10 players this year, then we’ll try to double that and the sky is going to be the limit.”
NFL teams did not meet Deion’s expectations, but with one of his own players being drafted and more players being selected this year than the previous two drafts, there appears to be progress. Former Super Bowl champion and HBCU alum Doug Williams told Sports Illustrated:
“It’s four times more than we had last year. I look at the part as if it’s a step in the right direction. I think there are a couple more that probably should have been drafted. I hope they all get a chance and go to somebody’s camp.”