What was starting to look like a sad case of déjà vu for players from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) during the first 2½ days of the 2022 NFL draft finally turned into draft dreams come true Saturday.
After no HBCU players were selected in 2021, the Kansas City Chiefs took Fayetteville State defensive back Joshua Williams in the fourth round with the 135th pick. Four HBCU prospects were selected in this year’s draft, the first time since 2019 that many HBCU players were picked. Williams is the first player from the Division II Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) to be drafted since 2018 and the first Fayetteville State player drafted since 1976.
“I knew it was going to be a big opportunity [for me], especially with a lot of the questions people had about me playing at a D-II school,” said Williams, as he spoke to the Kansas City, Missouri, media via Zoom after he was selected. “I’m going full speed, trying hard. I’m not going to take any breaks or any shortcuts. I’m out there just competing. That’s what I like to do. I like to compete. I’m a competitive guy, so I was out there, giving my all, having fun, playing football.”
After tallying 31 tackles, 3 interceptions and 6 pass breakups in nine games during his senior season in 2021 for the Broncos, Williams earned first-team HBCU All-American accolades and an invitation to the Reece’s Senior Bowl in February.
For Florida A&M football coach Willie Simmons, whose top defensive back Markquese Bell expected to go as early as the third round, seeing Williams and three other HBCU players drafted showed some progress.
“Anytime a young man has a chance to hear his name called is something that we all dream about as football players growing up,” said Simmons. “So for the handful of guys that represent HBCUs who got drafted, it is a step in a better direction. It went from zero last year, one the year before that to four this year. Some guys drafted as high as the fourth round. Obviously, I thought they were more draft-worthy guys.”
Before Williams’ selection Saturday, the last HBCU player taken in the draft was former Tennessee State offensive tackle Lachavious Simmons in the seventh round by the Chicago Bears in 2020. Williams is the highest HBCU selection since 2019, when the Houston Texans selected Alabama State’s Tytus Howard 23rd overall in the first round.
Seven picks after Williams, South Carolina State’s Decobie Durant became the second HBCU selection when the reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams took him with the 142nd pick. Durant is a 5-foot-10, 180-pound corner with 4.38 40-yard dash speed who tallied 38 tackles, 3 interceptions and 12 pass breakups as a senior, earning Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Defensive Player of the Year.
Linebacker James Houston became the first NFL draft pick of the Deion Sanders era at Jackson State when the Detroit Lions selected him with the 217th pick in the sixth round, also becoming the university’s 100th NFL draft pick. Houston had 16.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss last season. Houston’s decision to transfer from Florida after three seasons to play for Sanders as a senior looks to be well worth it.
“I know me and Coach Prime, we all kind of had the same aspirations and the same motivation to kind of kick this thing off,” Houston said during his first news conference as a Detroit Lion. “I can’t be more excited that I’m his first prospect in the NFL.”
With Houston, Lions general manager Brad Holmes, a graduate of historically Black North Carolina A&T, fulfilled a longtime promise he made to draft an HBCU player, the first drafted by the Lions since Brandon Hepburn out of Florida A&M in 2013.
“My mom gives me crap about it all the time, saying, ‘Why don’t you draft any HBCU players?’ ” Holmes told ESPN. “But, I’ve always said about that, too. They have to control it, too. They don’t get drafted just because they’re at an HBCU. They have to earn it. So, these kids earned it. Last year just wasn’t that caliber or process. It was a great run for HBCU players for a long time.
“When it comes from an HBCU perspective, I know a lot was made in the past, especially last year about none being selected. So, I was very happy to see, even before we took James, the others selected … It was good to see progress made on that front.”
Southern University offensive lineman Ja’Tyre Carter was the fourth HBCU player drafted Saturday when the Chicago Bears selected him with the 226th pick in the seventh round. Carter, who spent most of his collegiate career at left tackle, is expected to move into the interior line as a guard. Former Southern coach Dawson Odums, who coached Carter for four years before taking the coaching job at Norfolk State in 2021, is excited to see what Carter can do at the next level.
“They’re getting a compassionate young man that’s very athletic [and] very detailed,” Odums said. “One of the smartest offensive linemen in the draft. They’re getting the young man that defied the odds, has unbelievable belief and a work ethic that’s like no other.”
Bell, who was projected by many scouts to be the first HBCU player taken, went undrafted but was signed by the Dallas Cowboys immediately after the draft was over.
“I definitely think that [Bell] was worthy of being selected,” Simmons said. “At end of the day, the goal is not just to get drafted, the goal is to make it into the NFL. He has an opportunity with a great organization, an organization that’s prepared to compete for a championship, which is something you always want. They were the only team that brought their position coach to his personal workout pro day. So they showed their commitment a long time ago, so [I’m] just excited to see him land in a spot that really wants him to do extremely well.”
The three-day draft selection process was, at times, agonizing for Bell, who anxiously waited out the draft surrounded by family and friends in Tallahassee, Florida.
“It’s been pretty stressful over the past few days, but having my family around calmed me down.” Bell said. “It’s a blessing [having them here] and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m just as good as anybody else that was drafted. I want to come out with that chip on my shoulder and be that player I was in college to play with tenacity, play physical, smart play, learn the defense, and contribute in any way I can.”
Despite not hearing his name called during the draft, Bell believes he will still be a good fit for the Cowboys defense and is also excited for the four HBCU players who were selected.
“It’s great. Those guys worked hard for it, just like all of us,” Bell said. “For those guys to get that opportunity, it means a lot to me just because they also came from an HBCU. I know it means a lot to the universities and the guys coming behind them. I’m so glad they had that opportunity.”
Besides Bell, HBCU players who have signed as undrafted free agents include: Florida A&M offensive lineman Keenan Forbes (Seattle Seahawks), Florida A&M defensive end Savion Williams (New York Jets), Alcorn State quarterback Felix Harper (Cleveland Browns), Jackson State safety CJ Holmes (New Orleans Saints), Virginia State safety Will Adams (Atlanta Falcons), Howard/Sam Houston State running back Jequez Ezzard (Washington Commanders), S.C. State defensive back Zafir Kelly (Green Bay Packers), N.C. A&T receiver Ron Hunt (New York Jets), Fort Valley State receiver Shemar Bridges (Baltimore Ravens) and Southern linebacker Caleb Carter (Indianapolis Colts).
More HBCU players expect to sign in the coming days and Simmons believes other highly talented players could make an NFL team’s 53-player roster come next season.
“I think a lot more HBCU players will be in training camps and I feel confident that a good number of those guys will actually end up making rosters and have a chance to actually play on NFL teams.”