Although Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have received some attention thanks to Jackson State (Deion Sanders) and Tennessee State (Eddie George) hiring Pro Football Hall of Famers as their head coaches, the schools have been largely overlooked. Of the 259 players selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, none hailed from HBCUs. We aim to shed light on the talent that has gone unnoticed with a list of the top 10 HBCU players heading into the 2021 college football season.
Top 10 HBCU players to look forward to in 2021
Some current NFL players who came from HBCUs include Darius Leonard (South Carolina State), Tarik Cohen (North Carolina A&T), and Javon Hargrave (South Carolina State). Despite 2021 HBCU prospects such as Bryan Mills, Mac McCain III, and Donnie Corley possessing NFL talent, they had to slug through the UDFA market instead. These 10 players (plus 10 honorable mentions) will look to buck the trend and put their talent on full display this year.
Jah-Maine Martin, RB, North Carolina A&T
Jah-Maine Martin is likely the best collegiate running back you have never heard of. The Aggies star flashed his potential in 2018, rushing for 656 yards and 7 touchdowns on 98 attempts. Yet, that was nothing compared to his 2019 campaign when he erupted as Mount Tambora did in 1815 (the largest volcanic eruption known to man).
On 187 carries, Martin gashed the opposition for 1,446 yards and a school-record 23 touchdowns. That is 7.7 yards per carry — also an NC A&T record — with 9 rushes gaining 50-plus yards, all of which ended in TDs for the Aggies. Due to the MEAC suspending football activities in 2020, the first-team all-conference back is rested, angry, and ready to torment defenses this year.
Aqeel Glass, QB, Alabama A&M
You may recognize Aqeel Glass’ name as he torched Deion Sanders’ Jackson State squad this spring. He completed 27-of-40 passes for 440 yards, 6 touchdowns, and even scampered into the end zone from 10 yards out. Glass has started 32 of 34 possible games for the Bulldogs since joining the program as a true freshman in 2017. Glass ripped off three-straight stellar campaigns after throwing double the amount of interceptions (10) than touchdowns (5) in his first season.
In 2018, he led SWAC quarterbacks in yards (2,421), yards per game (220.5), touchdowns (20), and passer efficiency (128.8). The following year, he held first place in completions (273), attempts (445), yards (3,600), and yards per game (300). Finally, just a couple of months ago, Glass guided Alabama A&M to a 5-0 record, culminating in a SWAC Championship victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 40-33. He threw for 1,355 yards (338.8 per game) and 16 touchdowns during the shortened season, leading the conference in each.
Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim, WR, Alabama A&M
Who better to follow Glass than his favorite weapon? As a true freshman in 2019, Ibrahim bolstered an already unfair Alabama A&M offense. In just his second game, he corraled 9 receptions for 142 yards and 2 touchdowns against UAPB. The 6’1″ wideout finished the season with 58 receptions, 998 yards, and 11 touchdowns. His play garnered first-team all-conference honors as well as the SWAC Freshman of the Year award.
Ibrahim only played in three games in spring 2021, but he made every opportunity count. The Miramar, Florida product rattled off stat lines of 6-81-1, 5-94-2, and 7-102-0. With a semi-normal offseason, Glass and Ibrahim should only build on their rapport.
Jordan Lewis, DE, Southern
The first defender on this list of top HBCU players entering 2021, Jordan Lewis has been nothing short of destructive along the defensive line. His wicked first step is the stuff of legend. Lewis was an elite hurdler in high school, and that lower-body explosiveness is evident on the gridiron.
This spring, the Southern edge rusher registered 15 — FIFTEEN — tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, and even forced a fumble for good measure through five games. For perspective, Lewis generated 11.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks across 13 games in 2019.
Xavier Smith, WR, Florida A&M
The last time Xavier Smith set foot on a football field, defenses had no answers for him. In his redshirt-sophomore season in 2019, he produced 1,159 yards and 11 scores off 77 receptions. What makes Smith’s rise to relevance even more impressive is he walked on to FAMU out of Haines City, Florida. His size may knock him (5’10” and 175 pounds), but Smith’s speed, awareness, and undeniable effort are what make him a dangerous threat in the FCS.
Storey Jackson, LB, Prairie View A&M (transferring)
Following success in the JUCO ranks, Storey Jackson committed to Prairie View A&M to begin his D1 aspirations. Much like Jordan Lewis, Jackson shined in limited action in the shortened spring season. In three games, the Panthers linebacker delivered 50 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumbles recoveries, 1 interception, 1 quarterback hit, and 1 pass breakup. Even my fingers need a break after that performance.
Succeeding his exceptional season, Jackson decided to enter the transfer portal in the hopes of joining an FBS program. Whichever team lands the PVAMU star will receive an incredible return on their investment.
Felix Harper, QB, Alcorn State
At 5’11” and 180 pounds, Felix Harper is on the smaller side of the position. However, that does not limit his arm strength, as he uses his base and torques his hips to deliver the football. In 2019, the Braves signal-caller threw for the most touchdowns in the conference (33) against just 9 interceptions. He added another 6 scores on the ground en route to receiving the SWAC Offensive Player of the Year.
Oh, and in case you weren’t impressed yet, Harper can squat 405 pounds.
Mark Evans II, OL, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
If there is one word that describes Mark Evans, it is “mauler.” Although he is only 295 pounds at 6’4″, the left tackle has cement hands that stun pass rushers in their tracks. Furthermore, Evans destroys defenders in the ground game, often finishing blocks on top of the man across from him.
He played a pivotal role in running back Taeyler Porter producing back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons from 2018-2019. Rarely losing reps in pass protection or as a run blocker, Evans earned first-team All-SWAC recognition as a true sophomore.
Devyn Coles, CB, Norfolk State
North Carolina Central’s Bryan Mills was one of the best (if not the best) HBCU cornerbacks in 2019. A player who could take the mantle from Mills as he heads to the NFL is Norfolk State’s Devyn Coles. In 2019, Coles tied Mills for the most interceptions in the MEAC (5). The Spartans CB also broke up 6 passes (tied for seventh in the conference). I left out two key details that will add to the allure of Coles — not only did he start half the season, but he was also a true freshman.
With a year of college football under his belt and starting a full season, Coles could flourish into an elite cornerback.
Demetri Morsell, CB, Bowie State (DII)
Last but not least is Bowie State’s Demetri Morsell. The reigning CIAA Defensive Player of the Year led Division II with 9 picks and 4 turnovers returned for touchdowns (3 interceptions and 1 fumble) in 2019. He broke up another 5 passes as Bowie State held opposing teams to a league-best 15.6 points per game. His awe-inspiring outing turned the heads of coaches. As such, they named Morsell a first-team All-American.
Yes, he is playing in Division II, but his instincts and ball-hawking ability are extraordinary. Even off Morsell’s YouTube highlights, you can see the immense talent the Bulldogs have at their disposal.
Honorable mention for the top 10 HBCU players heading into 2021
Chris Myers, Norfolk State; Dacquari Wilson, North Carolina A&T; Daylen Baldwin, Jackson State (transferring); Decobie Durant, South Carolina State; Jalon Thigpen, UAPB; Juwan Carter, Norfolk State; Keonte Hampton, Jackson State; Kyin Howard, North Carolina A&T; Marcus Cushnie, Alabama A&M (transferring); Markquese Bell, Florida A&M.
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