A year after multiple HBCU players were taken in the NFL Draft, the 2023 edition was not as fruitful.
Despite an emphasis on creating additional avenues for Black college football players to be seen and evaluated by NFL scouts, just one HBCU player was selected following the seven-round event that ended Saturday.
Jackson State defensive back and kick returner Isaiah Bolden was selected in the seventh round by the New England Patriots on Saturday. He was one of 11 FCS players taken during the draft after 24 FCS players were picked in 2022.
Heading into the draft, there was hope that the number of HBCU players could possibly exceed the four who were taken during the 2022 NFL Draft.
Among those who figured to be drafted at some point included Jackson State All-SWAC linebacker Aubrey Miller, Arkansas-Pine Bluff offensive lineman Mark Evans II and 2021 Buck Buchanan Award winner Isaiah Land.
As the final day of the NFL Draft stretched deep into Saturday afternoon, there was notable disappointment that an HBCU player had failed to be selected amid a run of punters, kickers and FCS players.
Florida A&M head coach Willie Simmons on Twitter called the development “truly a head scratcher.”
Former Jackson State coach Deion Sanders also expressed disappointment in the outcome.
“I’m ashamed of the 31 other NFL teams that couldn’t find draft value in ALL of the talented HBCU players & we had 3 more draft worthy players at JSU.”
When draft-eligible HBCU players went undrafted in 2021, there was a noticeable movement from stakeholders inside Black college football circles to the upper reaches of the NFL itself to correct what has been considered an unsettling trend at the time. In 2020 and 2021, only one player representing an HBCU was selected among the 514 combined picks spanning in that period.
An NFL-backed scouting committee was instituted to help identify the top 150 draft-eligible HBCU players, Troy Vincent, Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the NFL, told HBCU Sports on the eve of the 2022 draft. The four longstanding Black college football conferences — CIAA, MEAC, SIAC, and SWAC — were added to the NFL video exchange program, which provides all 32 teams with a database of college game film.
Those efforts didn’t stop there.
The NFL hosted the first HBCU Combine in Mobile, Alabama in conjunction with the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
The NFL also partnered with the Black College Football Hall of Fame for the Legacy Bowl, an all-star game in New Orleans held a week after the Super Bowl for prospects from HBCUs. The game was the brainchild of former Grambling State quarterbacks James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams.
The league also encouraged the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Bowl to extend invitations to HBCU prospects. Several HBCU players also were part of the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
It all seemed to work. Four HBCU players were taken.
In the fourth round, the Kansas City Chiefs selected Fayetteville State cornerback Joshua Williams with the 135th overall pick, and the Los Angeles Rams selected South Carolina State cornerback Decobie Durant with the 142nd overall pick.
Jackson State linebacker James Houston IV was selected by the Detroit Lions in the sixth round (217th overall) and Southern offensive tackle Ja’Tyre Carter was drafted by the Bears in the seventh round (226th overall).
With just a single HBCU player drafted this year seems to be a crushing setback to all the progress that had been gained in a calendar year.
“You can’t tell me that there aren’t multiple players from HBCUs that should not have been drafted by now,” wrote NFL Network reporter and Howard alum Steve Wyche on Twitter during the seventh round. “I am not saying that emotionally. I am saying that because there are deserving players – Isaiah Land, Mark Evans and others – that have earned the right to be drafted.”