HBCU players hope to combine, Legacy Bowl ups NFL odds

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Javon Frazier and other HBCU players have something to prove in 2022, and more opportunities to prove it.

Nearly a year after none of their peers were selected in the NFL Draft, Frazier and others competed in the first HBCU combination last weekend, a week before Saturday’s Senior Bowl.

After former NFL players turned HBCU coaches like Deion Sanders at Jackson State and Eddie George at Tennessee State helped raise the profile of historically black colleges and universities, players are hoping the combination will boost their chances during the next draft in April.

The fact that no player from an HBCU was selected in the 2021 draft was painful to watch for Frazier and others.

“It hurt a little bit,” said Frazier, a Division II Virginia State linebacker/defensive end. “It was a little discouraging. But at the same time, I feel like HBCU players are going to have a chip on their shoulder now. For example, you didn’t draft one of us, I’ll show you what you’re missing.

They have a chance.

The HBCU combination for a few dozen players drew representatives from all 32 NFL teams ahead of Saturday’s Senior Bowl, a showcase for future senior or junior graduates.

So HBCU players practiced in front of every NFL team, demonstrating their vertical leap and showing how fast they run the 40-yard dash, among other measuring sticks. They’ve gone through the same rigors as prospects from the biggest schools every year at NFL combine and pro days.

Players were also able to sit down with representatives from every NFL team, which some of them might not have had the opportunity to do if they didn’t have pro days on the their school campus.

“If it can create an opportunity for a player, it’s worth it,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “I think there were a lot more guys who are going to have an opportunity because of that.”

The NFL had planned an HBCU combine in the spring of 2020 but had to cancel it due to COVID-19. Nagy suggested doing one in conjunction with the Senior Bowl a few months earlier in the schedule, although last year’s event was also canceled.

Players will have another opportunity at the Legacy Bowl game for HBCU players in New Orleans on February 19.

Both events could reverse a disappointing 2021 draft season for HBUC players.

Last year, not only were no HBCU players drafted, but the number of free agent signings fell short of the double digits. Only one HBCU player was selected in 2020, when Tennessee State’s LaChavious Simmons was a seventh-round pick.

The HBCUs have produced some of the league’s greatest players, including Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Walter Payton (Jackson State) and Michael Strahan (Texas Southern). Not to mention more recent products like Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard (South Carolina State) and 2019 first-round pick Tytus Howard from Alabama State.

The rosters for this year’s Senior Bowl include just one HBCU player, Southern offensive lineman Ja’Tyre Carter.

Alabama State running back Ezra Gray relishes the opportunity to show off his abilities that Power 5 players can take for granted.

“Just think about the guys who have been overlooked in the past and how they would have fared if they had an opportunity like this,” Gray said.

The running back appreciated not only the chance to show off his skills on the pitch, but also the opportunity to interview the team officials. The three-time All-Southwestern Athletic Conference pick held a 4.0 GPA in computer information systems.

The Senior Bowl will also have two HBCU coaches working with each staff, including Virginia State’s Reggie Barlow.

Barlow played in the Senior Bowl from Alabama State and played eight years in the NFL, including five with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“My mindset anyway, just like when I was a player, when I get the chance to go to the Senior Bowl or go to the combine, it was about showing up,” said said Barlow. “It was about showing that I belong, and it will be no different. We are going to approach it the same way, that we are going to stay.

“You only have a limited number of times in this lifetime to show off your stuff.”

Maybe not only more HBCU players will get NFL shots, but also coaches.

“Congratulations to the NFL for putting this together,” Barlow said. “And hopefully that’s something that’s going to last, and hopefully more guys get drafted and even more guys get a chance to sign as free agents.”

Gray of Alabama State knows the reality is that there is a huge pool of draft hopefuls out there, especially with players who were granted an extra year of eligibility last year by the NCAA due to the pandemic.

But if none are drafted once again, “it would definitely be a shock,” he said.

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