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Why were HBCU players shut out of 2021 NFL draft?

COVID-19 wiped out the chances for HBCU prospects to showcase their talents

The 2021 NFL draft ended without a single player from a historically Black college and university (HBCU) being selected.

While the third pick of the draft (quarterback Trey Lance) played at FCS North Dakota State, in all just nine non-FBS players were picked – five from FCS schools (where the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) compete), three from Division II (where the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) play) and one from Division III. Last year, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic wiping out pro days and team scouting visits, only six from those categories were drafted.

Historically, more than a dozen, and sometimes nearly two dozen, small-school players are taken, with HBCUs well represented. Between canceling seasons and delaying until this spring, the only schools that played full seasons in the fall of 2020 were Power 5 and Group of 5 programs … and their players made up 96.5% of the draft this year.

The arrival of COVID-19 wiped out the chances for HBCU prospects to showcase their talents. A year later, with the pandemic having shut down the seasons of most Black college programs, the price the players paid was even steeper – one year after only one HBCU player was selected, none at all were taken in the just-concluded 2021 draft.

Even in an environment in which the well-documented pipeline to the NFL has slowed to a trickle, it’s jarring to see the flow shut off. Just two years ago, in 2019, Alabama State tackle Tytus Howard was taken 23rd overall by the Houston Texans. In 2018, the Indianapolis Colts took future All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard in the second round out of South Carolina State.

But last year, the only HBCU product picked came in the seventh round, 227th overall, in Tennessee State tackle Lachavious Simmons by the Chicago Bears. This year, 259 players came off the board without any coming from the programs that have fed NFL rosters since the 1940s.

Still, the effects of the pandemic hint, if not outwardly confirm, that the last two draft years are an aberration.

The MEAC, CIAA and SIAC canceled their seasons – the MEAC after trying to postpone its season until the spring. After last year’s inaugural NFL-organized combine for HBCU players was canceled by the pandemic, Milwaukee businessman Ulice Payne Jr. and Bethune-Cookman assistant coach Charles “Yogi” Jones arranged an HBCU combine for early April in Birmingham, Alabama. In many cases, it was the only chance for prospects from this class and last year’s class to audition for scouts.

It appears to have opened the door for at least two of the participants, North Carolina A&T defensive back Mac McCain and Fayetteville State tackle Kion Smith, to sign as undrafted free agents, Payne said. Both players’ 2020-21 seasons were canceled, but McCain signed with the Denver Broncos and Smith with the Atlanta Falcons. It produced a sigh of relief from Payne, Jones and combine director Phillip Blackwell, who called and texted each other all weekend hoping to see one of their players’ names show up.

“For a lot of these guys, the only look they got was the HBCU combine,” Payne said. “Our goal was to give them either a first look or a second look. So we’re grateful for the chance to give them that look.”

In a less disrupted year, those two and any number of the others, as well as the players who found their way onto a roster or practice squad last season, might have heard their names called during the draft. And while the 2021 shutout fed the growing concern that HBCUs were disappearing from the NFL’s radar for good, all small schools were severely hampered by the havoc wreaked by the pandemic.

Presuming every team and league return to normal fall seasons this year, the chances of HBCU players getting drafted in 2022 can’t help but increase. With that, though, Payne believes that future prospects and NFL scouts will learn from the anomaly of the last two years.

“Maybe you don’t notice the habits you’re forming,” Payne said, speaking of NFL evaluators, “but you’re overlooking a lot of guys.” Seeing McCain, Smith and others from the HBCU combine get signed after the draft assured Payne and the organizers that they were on the right track with whom they had invited, and now they plan to keep encouraging prospects to come in and help their own cause by attending.

A handful of players had declined the HBCU combine invitation after attending postseason all-star games and pro days, worried that they would risk hurting their stock with another workout. Others had drifted away from the pre-draft process after their seasons had been canceled and other priorities overtook them, Payne said.

“We feel good about it, about HBCU pride,” he said of the combine, “and next year’s class will be more informed and more enthused.”

He noted that even now-Bears quarterback Justin Fields, at the top of the quarterback class throughout the run-up to the draft, held two pro days instead of the customary one. “That shows you you can’t get enough looks,” Payne said.

There is “no question” the pandemic affected the 2021 draft shutout, he added, so he and his partners are already planning to resume the HBCU combine next year, with even better results.

“I believe it’s not intentional,” he said of the NFL looking past the HBCUs, “so we’re going to give you an opportunity to see them again.”

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture.