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HBCU coaches, players busy preparing for the 2021 spring season

Seasons to kick off last weekend in February

With the postponement of football at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) this fall, players and coaches are staying active, not only physically but mentally to prepare for the spring 2021 season.

HBCUs have known since August that their seasons would begin in late February. The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) will play six conference games, with the season kicking off Feb. 27. The football season will culminate with the Cricket Wireless SWAC Championship Game on May 1. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) will follow the same scheduling scenario, with its first title game May 1.

In preparation for their seasons, coaches are having virtual workouts, visiting players at their homes and holding weekly seminar sessions in Zoom meetings. Some of the nation’s top HBCU NFL prospects are either opting out of their senior season to prepare for the draft, while others are staying for the last go-around of their college careers.

“The biggest thing is, as coaches, we always try to find the edge of how we can do things within the legal system and being in compliance as well as in terms of what our kids can and cannot do,” said Fred McNair, Alcorn State’s head football coach. “Right now, we’re just trying to watch some things in terms of making sure they’re safe with the environment, following protocols with what the university has set forth, and hopefully we’ll start back working out in another week or so.”

The Alcorn State football program and the SWAC have a rich history of football players going to the NFL, eventually leading them to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Donald Driver, all-time leading receiver for the Green Bay Packers, and Steve McNair, the Tennessee Titans’ all-time leading passer, are two notable Alcorn State graduates who broke barriers in the NFL. Though there have only been 70 HBCU players taken in the NFL draft since 2000, Fred McNair says he and other HBCU coaches are trying to change those numbers.

“As coaches, we just have to do as much as we can when the scouts come here on campus to showcase these players that we have,” said McNair, whose team lost 64-44 to North Carolina A&T in last year’s Celebration Bowl in Atlanta. “I think we do a real good job of preparing our players for the next level in terms of football and academics.

“We as coaches struggle sometimes to get scouts to understand that we do have NFL talent here on this campus and HBCU-wise, period. We’re going to try to get together as HBCU coaches to see what we can and cannot do to lift up the way we present these guys to the NFL.”

Bowie State is one of the top programs in HBCU football. The Bulldogs went 11-0 last season and 7-0 in conference play, leading them to their second straight Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association title in 2019 under the leadership of alumnus and head coach Damon Wilson. With student-athletes at home this fall, Wilson and the Bowie State football program are continuing to keep their players on NFL scouts’ radar, holding workouts virtually and keeping their players mentally on point.

“We’re doing a lot of things virtually. We’re conducting workouts in a safe environment following the CDC guidelines. We are getting the information out to our professional teams with all of our film in the NFL database and the dub center, so those guys have an opportunity to evaluate our rising seniors,” Wilson said.

“We are having guest speakers come, whether it is a professional football player or people in another profession, to talk to the guys and give them some inspiration.”

Seniors Bryan Mills, a defensive back at North Carolina Central, and Aqeel Glass, quarterback at Alabama A&M, are two of the top HBCU NFL prospects. Mills decided to opt out of his senior season to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft. In his junior season, Mills was voted First-Team All-MEAC, selected to the Phil Steele All-MEAC First Team, led the MEAC with five interceptions and was named to the BOXTOROW All-America Team that recognizes top HBCU players.

Bryan Mills (second from right) of the North Carolina Central Eagles decided to opt out of his senior season to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft.

North Carolina Central University

“The timing of everything. The scouts from the next level, the NFL, want to see me pursue my dream. Everything was perfect timing, honestly, so I took my chance,” Mills said.

Mills, who is from Palmdale, California, was also selected for the Reese’s Senior Bowl 250 watch list, which showcases the best NFL draft prospects of those players who have completed their college eligibility. He caught the scouts’ eye when he became MEAC defensive player of the week after getting three interceptions in a game against Morgan State last season.

“I was really excited, very excited. I came a long way from two junior colleges to only having one D-I offer to now having the opportunity to showcase my talent on a bigger stage, so it really means a lot,” Mills said.

Glass, who is from St. Louis, is one of the SWAC’s top quarterbacks returning for their senior season at Alabama A&M in the spring. He ended his junior season as the school’s career touchdown passing leader (57), single-season passing yardage leader (3,600) and also led SWAC signal-callers in several statistical categories, including completions (273).

Alabama A&M quarterback Aqeel Glass will return for his senior season in the spring.

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“When I came to Alabama A&M, that was one of my goals, to not only leave a lasting impact on A&M itself, but the whole conference and all of FCS football,” Glass said. “It’s a great honor. As my high school coach would say, ‘I haven’t done anything but my job yet,’ so I still have a ton of things to grow on, a ton of things to get better at, so I’m just continuing to work and keep my head down.”

During the shutdown of the season, Glass has been preparing to bring a title back to Alabama A&M.

“My biggest goal is to win a championship. That’s one thing that has evaded me in my career so far and I just want to end that off on the right note,” Glass said.

Top HBCU 2021 NFL Prospects

  • Jah-Maine Martin, senior running back, North Carolina A&T

Martin, a 5-foot-10, 214-pound running back, had a breakout season for the Aggies in 2019 as the only player in the MEAC to rush for more than 1,000 yards. He also had seven 100-yard games during the season and one 200-yard game, the second-most in a single season in school history.

  • Bryan Mills, senior defensive back, North Carolina Central

In his junior and only season at N.C. Central, the 6-foot-2, 170-pound defender had a breakout season, topping the MEAC with five interceptions, was second in the league with 13 passes defended and 22 tackles (17 solo), including an assisted sack.

  • Harry Ballard III, senior wide receiver, Arkansas-Pine Bluff

Ballard has been one of the most notable offensive players in the SWAC the last two seasons. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound wide receiver led the Golden Lions in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions (10) while having three straight 100-yard receiving games. Ballard was a two-time SWAC newcomer of the week and First-Team All-SWAC.

  • Aqeel Glass, senior quarterback, Alabama A&M

Glass, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound quarterback, had an impressive 2019 season, accounting for 33 touchdowns and finishing in the top 10 in the FCS in passing yards per game, and led the SWAC in completions with 273.

  • Felix Harper, redshirt junior quarterback, Alcorn State

Harper, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound dual-threat quarterback, ranked fourth in the FCS in passing touchdowns (33), fifth in points responsible for (19.7 points per game), seventh in passing efficiency (160.7), eighth in yards per completion (14.5) and ninth in yards per pass attempt (8.7). The 2019 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year ended the season with 2,954 yards, 33 touchdowns, nine interceptions and six rushing touchdowns. He was one of four finalists for the HBCU Player of the Year award. He was also a finalist for the C Spire Conerly Trophy, which went to the best player in Mississippi.

Ashton Edmunds, a junior mass media arts major from Tallahassee, Florida, is the sports editor for The CAU Panther newspaper, an intern for The Atlanta Voice/Voice News Network and also an inaugural Turner Diversity Fellow at WarnerMedia.