HBCU football players will have a chance to audition in front of NFL teams this weekend. While it’s a start, hurdles remain in getting more such players drafted.
The goal of the event, which was originally scheduled for 2020 but put on hold due to the pandemic, is to increase the amount of HBCU players drafted and signed as un-drafted free agents. Since 2019, there have been a total of 672 draft picks, but only five of those selections have been from HBCUs. The regression is something the league is looking to correct, especially considering many of the league’s greatest players — from Jerry Rice and Walter Payton to Michael Strahan and Shannon Sharpe — are HBCU alumni.
The HBCU Combine will differ from the traditional NFL Combine that takes place in Indianapolis in several key ways, but arguably the largest difference is in numbers. The NFL has invited 40 HBCU prospects to the University of South Alabama this weekend, while in 2020 (the most recent traditional combine), the league hosted 55 wide receivers alone.
On the NFL’s website under the combine tab it even advertises this. It reads:
“Over 300 of the nation’s top college prospects head to Indianapolis to showcase their talent and passion for the game in an intense, 4-day job interview. See who has the fastest 40 yard dash and other results, with live coverage of all the workouts.”
In 2020, the league hosted a total of 337 players.
With the league saying it devoted over 60 hours of coverage to the 2020 NFL Combine, the 2022 HBCU Combine, a three-day event, will not be able to match the exposure that the former brings. Prospects attending the HBCU Combine will arrive in Mobile on Friday, perform their drills and potential interviews on Saturday, and depart on Sunday.
On top of the 72-hour turnaround, the HBCU prospects will also have to perform their drills in the middle of the NFL Playoffs. Typically, when the NFL Combine occurs at the end of February or the first week in March, the timing is in the NFL’s favor. The NBA has concluded its All-Star weekend and is in the final stretch before the playoffs, while MLB’s Opening Day is still a month away. This means the league’s broadcast partners can zero in specifically on the event and its best performers.
It remains to be seen whether the broadcast partners will cover the HBCU combine the same way they do the official 2022 Combine.
The NFL Combine in Indianapolis brings owners, team executives, coaches, former players, and fans all to one spot for a week. In fact, outside of the Super Bowl, one could argue that the NFL Combine is the league’s second-largest event.
An original advocate for the HBCU Combine, Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders no longer wants it.
“[In 2020] they were going to invite 52 to players to Miami but I’m pretty darn sure all scouts, owners, and exposure that were going to be at the main combine were not going to be at the [HBCU one],” Coach Prime said in an interview in December. “I’m on the inside now saying ‘why would I settle?’ I don’t settle for anything in my life.”
He continued: “I don’t want to be separate in nothing no more, I want to be whole. I wish that our kids could be right alongside those kids.”
Interestingly enough, one of the top players across HBCU football, Florida A&M defensive back Markquese Bell, was not invited to the HBCU Combine or the Reese’s Senior Bowl. That’s despite Bell leading his team in tackles and ranking fourth in his conference. He was also named the Reese’s Senior Bowl Defensive Player of the week in the third week of the season, and after FAMU coach Willie Simmons called out the Senior Bowl on Twitter, Bell received an invite to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
The situation with Bell appears to be an anomaly. Nonetheless, 40 players will gather this weekend in Mobile to audition for the league’s 32 teams. But the success of the HBCU Combine will not be determined until the NFL Draft in April. Should more players be selected, the league will have reason to keep a separate combine going. If the HBCU Combine does not yield results, HBCU administrators, coaches and players will likely be calling for an extra 40 slots at the official NFL Combine.