HBCU players hoping combine, Legacy Bowl boost NFL chances

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MOBILE, Ala. — Javon Frazier and other HBCU players have something to prove in 2022, and more opportunity to prove it.

Nearly a year after none of their peers were selected in the NFL draft, Frazier and others participated in the first HBCU combine this past weekend, a week before Saturday’s Senior Bowl.

After former NFL players-turned-HBCU coaches like Deion Sanders at Jackson State and Eddie George at Tennessee State helped raise the profile of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, players are hoping the combine boosts their chances in the upcoming April draft.

Having no players from an HBCU selected in the 2021 draft was painful for Frazier and others to watch.

“It did hurt a little bit,” said Frazier, a linebacker/defensive end from Division II Virginia State. “It was a little discouraging. But at the same time, I feel like HBCU players are going to have a chip on their shoulder now. Like, you didn’t draft one of us, I’m going to show you guys what you’re missing.”

They’re getting a chance.

The HBCU combine for a few dozen players drew representatives from all 32 NFL teams as a prelude to Saturday’s Senior Bowl, a showcase for senior or junior graduate prospects.

So players from HBCUs worked out in front of every NFL team, demonstrating their vertical leap and showing how fast they run the 40-yard dash, among other measuring sticks. They went through the same rigors as prospects from bigger schools do every year at the NFL combine and pro days.

The players also got to sit down with representatives of each NFL team, something some of them may not have had otherwise had a chance to do if they don’t have pro days on their school campus.

“If it can create an opportunity for one player, it’s worth doing,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “I think there was a lot more guys that are going to get an opportunity because of that.”

The NFL had scheduled an HBCU combine in the spring of 2020 but had to cancel it because of COVID-19. Nagy suggested doing one in conjunction with the Senior Bowl a few months earlier in the calendar instead, though last year’s event was also called off.

The players will get another opportunity during the Legacy Bowl game for HBCU players in New Orleans on Feb. 19.

Both events may reverse a disappointing 2021 draft season for HBUC players.

Last year, not only were no HBCU players drafted but the number of free agent signings didn’t reach double digits. Only one HBCU player was selected in 2020, when Tennessee State’s Lachavious Simmons was a seventh-round pick.

HBCU’s have produced some of the league’s greatest players, including Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Walter Payton (Jackson State) and Michael Strahan (Texas Southern). Not to mention more recent products like Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard (South Carolina State) and 2019 first-round pick Tytus Howard out of Alabama State.

The rosters for this year’s Senior Bowl only includes one HBCU player, Southern offensive lineman Ja’Tyre Carter.

Alabama State running back Ezra Gray is savoring the chance to showcase his ability that Power 5 players may take for granted.

“Just think about guys who have been overlooked in the past and how they would have panned out if they would have had an opportunity such as this,” Gray said.

The running back appreciated not just the chance to show his abilities on the field but the opportunity to interview with team officials. The three-time All-Southwestern Athletic Conference pick held a 4.0 grade-point average in computer information systems.

The Senior Bowl also will have two HBCU coaches working with each staff, including Virginia State’s Reggie Barlow.

Barlow played in the Senior Bowl coming out of Alabama State and played eight years in the NFL, including five with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“My mind-set anyway, just like when I was a player, when I get a chance to go to the Senior Bowl or get a chance to go to the combine, it was about showing out,” Barlow said. “It was about showing that I belong, and this won’t be any different. We’ll approach it the same way, that we’re going to stay.

“You only get so many times in this life to show your stuff.”

Perhaps it will result in not only more HBCU players getting NFL shots, but coaches.

“Kudos to the NFL for them organizing this,” Barlow said. “And hopefully it’s something that will sustain, and hopefully we’ll have several guys get drafted and even more guys will have a chance to sign as free agents.”

Alabama State’s Gray knows the reality is there’s a huge pool of draft hopefuls, especially with the players who were granted an extra year of eligibility last year by the NCAA because of the pandemic.

But if none are drafted once again, “It definitely would be a shocker,” he said.

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”

Pac-12 looking stronger at top after early-season losses

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When Oregon got throttled by top-ranked Georgia and Utah lost at Florida, it appeared as though the Pac-12 was headed toward another College Football Playoff miss.

One week into the season and two of the conference’s top teams had already failed big early tests.

Flash forward three weeks and it seems the Pac-12 might be in good shape after all.

The Ducks and Utes bounced back with big wins and the top of the conference looks strong, with four teams in the top 15 for the first time since 2016.

It’s still early, but the Pac-12 is putting itself in position to get a team through to the CFP for the first time since Washington in 2016-17.

A look at how the top of the Pac-12 is stacking up headed into the first weekend of October:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The No. 6 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) seem to have quickly returned to glory in their first season under Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma coach brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him to Southern California and they have thrived through the first four games.

Williams has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 100 yards and two more scores rushing. USC’s defense has been opportunistic, leading the nation with 11 interceptions while tied for the lead with 14 takeaways.

The Trojans survived a scare against scrappy Oregon State over the weekend to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. USC has to play at Utah on Oct. 15, but avoids Washington and Oregon this season.

UTAH

The 12th-ranked Utes opened the season with a tough road loss at The Swamp in Florida, but have won three straight lopsided games.

Outside of a costly interception late against the Gators, quarterback Cam Rising has been sharp, throwing for 954 yards and 10 TDs. Utah (3-1, 1-0) has a physical defense and is third in the FBS, allowing 132.8 yards passing per game.

The Utes also have a veteran team that won the Pac-12 championship last season. The bad news: tight end Brant Kuithe, their leading receiver, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Utah plays Oregon State this weekend and has tough games against USC and Oregon still on the schedule.

OREGON

The Ducks’ playoff chances took an immediate hit with a 49-3 loss to reigning national champion Georgia in their opener.

No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0) bounced back with a decisive win over a good BYU team and outlasted previously undefeated Washington State 44-41 last week.

The Ducks were no match for the Bulldogs in any aspect – few teams are – but have averaged 51.6 points the past three games. Oregon’s biggest weakness is its pass defense. The Ducks are allowing 72.5% of passes to be completed, third worst in the country.

Oregon’s biggest tests left in the season will come in back to back games against Washington and Utah.

WASHINGTON

The Huskies have made a quick turnaround in their first season under coach Kalen DeBoer.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been superb now that he’s healthy, throwing for an FBS-best 1,388 yards and 12 TDs with one interception. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) picked up a solid home win against Michigan State and has 15 sacks this season, including eight against Stanford last week.

The Huskies play their first road game at undefeated UCLA on Saturday and have to face Oregon on Nov. 12.

UCLA

After winning at Colorado for the first time since 2014 last Saturday, the Bruins (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have their longest winning streak since winning the first eight games in 2005.

UCLA had a hard time getting past South Alabama and opened its Pac-12 schedule with a win against the struggling Buffaloes.

The Bruins will find out how good they are over the next three weeks, a brutal stretch that includes home games against Washington and Utah before heading to Eugene to play the Ducks on Oct. 22.