By LUT WILLIAmS BCSP Editor
In many ways, AZEEZ Communications could not have picked a better time than the fall of the 1994-95 season to launch the Black college SportS page.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were coming off years when only eight (8) players were taken in the 1993 NFL Draft, ending a streak of 32 straight years of doubledigit selections, and 1994 when 13 players were drafted, only one in the first round.
It would not be long however before HBCU picks in the single digits would be the norm. From the 1995 Draft to this year’s 2020 NFL Draft is what is covered this week in Part Four, the final installment of our series on HBCU NFL Draft History.
NEW LIFE, MAYBE?
If horizons looked bleak for black college players’ prospects in the NFL Draft following the 1993 and 1994 performances, Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair changed that.
McNair put HBCU football on the front page of newspapers, magazines and in front of national television audiences with his sterling, record-breaking play for the Braves during the 1994 season. He was the first HBCU player to win the Walter Payton Award awarded to the top offensive player in NCAA I-AA football.
McNair finished the season with careerbests of 5,377 passing yards and 47 touchdowns and a boatload of highlight finishes, numbers similar to 2019 Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow of LSU. McNair added another 904 rushing yards and ten TDs.
Most importantly however for HBCUs and the BCSP, he put the national spotlight on black colleges and their players as he made a run at the Heisman Trophy earning the cover of Sports Illustrated in the process.
He finished third for the coveted trophy behind two running backs – winner Rashaan Salaam of Colorado and secondplace finisher KaJana Carter of Penn State. It was the best finish for an HBCU player in college football history besting Grambling quarterback Doug Williams’s fourth-place finish behind Texas running back Earl Campbell in 1977.
As 1995 draft time neared there was much speculation that McNair would be the third HBCU player to go off the boards first overall (following Grambling’s Buck Buchanan in 1963 and Tennessee State’s Ed “Too Tall” Jones in 1974) to Cincinnati. But the Bengals chose Carter instead. After the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars chose Southern Cal offensive tackle Tony Boselli, Houston took McNair with the third pick.
But McNair was not the only HBCU player to make headlines in the draft.
Central State defensive end Hugh Douglas also had an impressive all-American career for the Marauders in the NAIA and followed that up with head-turning postseason performances landing him in the first round, 16th overall to the New York Jets.
While McNair waited his turn in the Oilers’ pecking order at quarterback in his rookie season, Douglas posted ten sacks and won the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He finished his ten-year career with 80 sacks and three Pro Bowl selections.
After an impressive workout at the Combine and a star-studded career as a four-year starter at Fort Valley State, the expansion Carolina Panthers selected cornerback Tyrone Poole with the 22nd pick of the first round. Poole spent 13 years in the league playing for eight teams and was a member of two Super Bowl championship teams.
Every member of the trio spent double-digit years in the league as McNair played 13 seasons winning the 2003 co-NFL Most Valuable Player Award with the Oilers, three Pro Bowl selections and playing in one Super Bowl. He passed for over 31,000 yards and 174 TDs in his career while running for over 3,500 yards and 35 TDs.
While those three garnered headlines at the top of the draft, overall numbers only reached 13 in 1995 with the remaining selectees at or near the bottom of the now seven-round draft. The following year the numbers rose to 17 with North Carolina A&T offensive lineman Jamain Stephens, a first rounder to Pittsburgh leading the way. Stephens stayed in the league six years but never became a dependable starter.
Among the notables from that draft was black college all-time leading rusher Richard Huntley out of Winston-Salem State who went in the fourth round to Atlanta. Huntley’s black college career rushing record still stands at 6,286 yards. He stayed in the league seven years. Others in that draft were two future HBCU head coaches. Former outstanding Florida A&M linebacker Earl “The Hitman” Holmes taken by Pittsburgh in the third round, became the head coach at his alma mater after a 10-year NFL career.
Former Alabama State wide receiver/kick returner Reggie Barlow, now the head coach at Virginia State and formally the head coach at his alma mater, was taken by Jacksonville in the fourth round and played in the league eight years.
Thirteen (13) HBCU players went off the boards in 1997, none in the first round. The two with the longest NFL tenures were former Langston wide receiver Matthew Hatchette who played seven years on four NFL teams after being selected by Minnesota in the seventh round and former Knoxville nose guard Grady Jackson, a sixth round pick by the Oakland Raiders who had a productive 12-year NFL career.
The 1998 draft class was significant as only the second single-digit haul, with eight going off the boards, since the early 1950s. The gem of that draft was Jackson State wideout Corey Bradford taken by Green Bay in the fifth round. He played four reliable years with the Packers before spending another five years with Houston and Detroit.
Draft numbers took another dip down to seven overall in 1999 but another SWAC product and wide receiver turned out to be theclass of that year’s crop.
Alcorn State’s Donald Driver was taken by Green Bay and turned out to be better selection that Bradford a year earlier. Driver stayed 14 seasons in the league, all with the Packers, and retired as the team’s all-time leader in receptions (743) and receiving yards (10,137) with 61 touchdowns. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and Super Bowl XLV winner.
The 2000 Draft was filled with a lot of false hope. For the first time since the “McNair Draft” of 1995, more than one HBCU player was taken in the first round. This time both were from the same school.
Jackson State had tall (6-3) wide receiver Sylvester Morris taken by Kansas City with the 21st overall selection and defensive back Rashard Anderson taken by Carolina two picks later, 23rd.
What forecast perhaps years of promising production by the two turned into disaster as both had careers cut short by injuries. Morris’s knee injuries and surgeries limited him to one productive season, his rookie campaign with the Chiefs. Off-field troubles derailed Anderson’s career after only two seasons.
The 2000 draft was also noteworthy because it was the last time black college draft numbers reached double-digits. In fact, the 74 HBCU players drafted between 2001 and 2020, is in total just above the all-time single-season high of 70 in 1968. The one HBCU player taken in 2012 (S. C. State, safety, Christian Thompson, 4th round) and 2020 (Tennessee State OL Lachavious Simmons, 7th round) match the all-time lows of one from the early 1950s.
THE LAST 20 YEARS
Starting in 2001, the HBCU Draft numbers have been pitiful. The numbers have gotten above five only five times and have now stayed below five for 12 consecutive years. The first round picks have all but disappeared.
The only ones to garner a first round selection during this period are former Tennessee State defensive back Dominique Rodgers Cromartie to Arizona in 2008 and Alabama State offensive lineman Tytus Howard to Houston in 2019.
Over this period, the chances of selection are very slim. Teams are taking fewer chances on what used to be termed ‘projects.’ That means black college players are being vetted now more than ever.
Here are the ones that have survived the scrutiny and carved out nice careers.
Defensive back Rashean Mathis of Bethune-Cookman (2nd round to Jacksonville), tight end Visanthe Shiancoe out of Morgan State (3rd round to NY Giants) and defensive end Robert Mathis of Alabama A&M (5th round to Indy) were studs out of the 2003’s draft of eight HBCU players and had long productive careers.
Two were late seventh rounders in 2004 but didn’t distinguish themselves.
Second round picks Ron Bartell of Howard and Nick Collins of Bethune-Cookman were defensive backs among six overall picks in 2005 who made their marks in the league.
Alabama State QB Tarvaris Jackson started his ten-year career in 2006 as a secondrounder to Minnesota. Grambling State defensive lineman Jason Hatcher also played ten years after being selected in the third round by Dallas while Howard safety Antoine Bethea will likely enter his 20th season this year after a sixth-round selection.
Hampton linebacker Justin Durant had an 11-year career after being selected in the second round by Jacksonville in 2007. Wide receiver Jacoby Jones lasted ten years after his third round selection out of Lane.
Defensive end Kendall Langford of Hampton and linebacker William Hayes of Winston-Salem State proved their mettle lasting ten and 11 years after third and fourth round selections respectively in 2008.
The 2009 Draft produced Sammie Hill (Stillman, 4th Round, 7 years)), defensive back Greg Toler (St. Paul’s, 4th Round, 8 years) and defensive Don Carey (Norfolk State, 6th round, 10 years).
In 2013, New Orleans plucked what appears to be a perennial all pro in Arkansas-Pine Bluff offensive lineman Terron Armstead in the second round. Delaware State defensive tackle Rodney Gunter has become a dependable force after being selected in the fourth round in 2015.
South Carolina State defensive tackle Javon Hargrave led three in 2016 as he was taken by Pittsburgh in the third round. North Carolina Central defensive back Ryan Smith is hanging tough after a fifth-round selection that same year.
North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen was the second of four overall picks in the fourth round by Chicago in 2017. Albany State defensive lineman Grover Stewart went to Indy in the fifth round and is still going.
South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honor after his second round selection by Indy in 2018. Three were taken overall.
LAST OF THE FIRST ROUNDERS?: (L. to r.) Tennessee State defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in 2008 and Alabama State lineman Tytus Howard in 2019 are the only HBCU first round NFL Draft selections over the last 20 years.