Coaches frustrated after no HBCU players drafted by NFL
After the final pick of the NFL draft had been made, North Carolina Central coach Trei Oliver spoke with cornerback Bryan Mills. A long-limbed and explosive athlete, Mills had expected to be taken in the late rounds. Every team passed on him, though, and he settled on signing with the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent. Mills confronted disappointment, but still had a chance at an NFL career.
“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 like Mel Blount and Walter Payton to current All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard. Of the 259 players drafted last weekend, zero came from HBCU programs.
The absence of HBCU players in the draft stemmed from factors large and small, starting with the pandemic postponing fall seasons to the spring or canceling them altogether. Even acknowledging the hurdles, HBCU coaches and advocates were surprised and disheartened that not one player was taken.
“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 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 offensive tackle David Moore (Carolina Panthers), Florida A&M offensive tackle Calvin Ashley (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), North Carolina A&T’s 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 offensive 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) 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 won Defensive Rookie of the Year and made two All-Pro first teams in his first three seasons.