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.

Vick, Fitzgerald and Suggs among stars on College Football Hall of Fame ballot for 1st time

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Michael Vick, Larry Fitzgerald and Terrell Suggs are among the college football stars who will be considered for induction to the Hall of Fame for the first time this year.

The National Football Foundation released Monday a list of 78 players and nine coaches from major college football who are on the Hall of Fame ballot. There also are 101 players and 32 coaches from lower divisions of college football up for consideration.

Vick, who led Virginia Tech to the BCS championship game against Florida State as a redshirt freshman in 1999, is among the most notable players appearing on the ballot in his first year of eligibility.

Vick finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1999. He played one season of college football before being drafted No. 1 overall by the Atlanta Falcons in 2001. Vick’s professional career was interrupted when he served 21 months in prison for his involvement in dog fighting.

Fitzgerald was the Heisman runner-up in 2003 to Oklahoma quarterback Jason White. He scored 34 touchdowns in just two seasons at Pitt.

Suggs led the nation in sacks with 24 in 2002 for Arizona State.

The 2024 Hall of Fame class will be chosen by the National Football Foundation’s Honors Court and announced in January. Induction into the Atlanta-based hall is the following December.

Alabama freshman DB Mitchell says he wasn’t sure he’d get to play again after arrest

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Alabama defensive back Tony Mitchell said he feared his football career was over after his arrest on a drug charge.

The Crimson Tide freshman said in a video posted Sunday on social media that he knew “something much bigger could have happened.”

A judge in Holmes County, Florida, sentenced Mitchell to three years of probation with a fine and community service on May 24 after Mitchell pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of more than 20 grams of cannabis.

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to play football again, but I continued to work out and stay close with the Lord and those who love me unconditionally,” Mitchell said. “During those times, it helped me to keep my mind off it. But when I was by myself looking at social media, what everybody had to say about it, it just felt like it happened again.

“I didn’t sleep at night.”

He was suspended from the Alabama team following the arrest, but Mitchell’s father, Tony Sr., posted on Facebook last week that the defensive back had been reinstated. An Alabama spokesman declined to comment on Mitchell’s status.

Tony Mitchell Sr. shared his son’s video on Facebook, saying it was filmed during a talk to youth.

“I was doing things I knew I shouldn’t to try to fit in,” the younger Mitchell said, “but not everybody’s your friend.”

Mitchell, who is from Alabaster, Alabama, was a four-star prospect and the 15th-rated safety in the 247Composite rankings.

He had been charged in March with possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell after a traffic stop when authorities said he drove over 141 mph (227 kph) while trying to evade deputies in the Florida Panhandle. A deputy had spotted Mitchell’s black Dodge Challenger traveling 78 mph (125 kph) in a 55 mph (88 kph) zone on a rural highway north of Bonifay.

He also received 100 hours of community service and paid a fine of $1,560.

Mitchell and a passenger were both charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to sell or deliver, according to a Holmes County Sheriff’s Office arrest report. The other man also was charged with carrying a concealed gun without a permit.