HBCU players seeking ways to increase numbers at NFL combine
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Mark Evans II feels honored to be at this week's NFL's annual scouting combine.
The former Arkansas-Pine Bluff offensive lineman just believes more players from historically Black colleges and universities deserve to be in Indianapolis.
Nearly three years after the NFL announced its support for enhanced diversity policies and just weeks after the second Legacy Bowl and HBCU combine wrapped up, Evans and Isaiah Land are the only HBCU participants among the 319 invitees. That's half of last year's total of four.
“I feel like they're making progress, but I feel like it most definitely should be more than two,” he said Saturday. “I feel like there are a lot of good players out there and I feel like we should be represented more.”
Should combine officials ask, Evans has some suggestions: linebacker Jordan Lewis of Southern, Lewis' college teammate and 2023 Legacy Bowl defensive MVP Jason Dumas and North Carolina Central offensive lineman Robert Mitchell.
It's just a start — and he has more suggestions for next year's combine, too.
For now, though, Evans must acknowledge one undeniable fact; two years after no HBCU players were drafted, he and Land look like the best hope of avoiding a repeat.
The 6-foot-2 1/2, 303-pound Texan is scheduled to work out Sunday with the offensive linemen before closing down the combine with Monday’s bench press.
But the edge rusher from Florida A&M certainly did his part this weekend. Land measured in at 6-foot-3 1/2, 236 pounds, was clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.62 seconds, 13th in his position group and just .02 seconds behind former Alabama star Will Anderson Jr., one of the front-runners to be this year's No. 1 overall pick.
“I try to put my best foot forward every time because I just want to give hope to those guys at the HBCU level, like you know you could make it to this point,” he said before Thursday's workout. “You've just got to stay consistent, and you've got to have that underdog mentality."
It's a lesson Land, who is from Buffalo, New York, seems to have taken from one of today's top HBCU ambassadors, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard. The three-time All-Pro beat the odds by becoming a second-round pick, the 2018 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and despite an injury-filled 2022 season is still regarded as one of the league's top playmakers.
Few gave him a chance when he started at South Carolina State. Today, he's not only the face and voice of what can be achieved with grit and work, he repeatedly advocates for teams and scouts to keep HBCU prospects on their radar.
He's not alone.
Washington Commanders general manager Martin Mayhew grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, and followed Land's Rattlers, partially because they were local but primarily because Florida A&M was his mother's alma mater. He's been a fan ever since.
“I want to give some shoutout to my old (college) teammate Deion Sanders for shining a light on black colleges and HBCUs," Mayhew said earlier this week. "Florida A&M was a school that I was very familiar with, I watched all their games when I was in high school. They (HBCUs) are getting more views on television. They’re much more visible than they were four or five years ago.”
So far, the numbers haven't moved much.
Even with help from Sanders, the former Jackson State coach, and Leonard coupled with the NFL's efforts, only four HBCU players were taken last year — the most in a single draft since 2019.
Fayetteville State cornerback Joshua Williams, the top HBCU selection last season at No. 135 overall (fourth round), made it pay off. He played in all 17 games, made 40 tackles, picked off one pass and earned a Super Bowl ring in his rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs.
What else would help?
HBCUs have traditionally faced financial challenges with everything from athletic department budgets to educational support, and now face additional concerns in a college world with NIL deals and a transfer portal that makes it easier for Power Five schools to mine talent from smaller schools and conferences across the college landscape.
But Evans thinks he benefitted from some of the advantages Arkansas-Pine Bluff presented for him and another alum, four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead of the Miami Dolphins.
“I feel like I'm able to stand out,” Evans said. “When scouts came through, I was able to sit down with them and talk to each and every one of them and I felt that was really important for me to get that experience.”
Still, Evans believes more should be done and if he makes an NFL roster he has promised to help provide more exposure on HBCU schools and their players in hopes of restarting the pipeline to the NFL that was so productive in earlier decades.
Land hopes to be part of the solution, too, and he has a simple message for those still playing college football. Accept the challenge.
“I always had a chip on my shoulder when I went against bigger school guys because I just always feel like I've got something to prove,” he said. “That’s one of the main reasons why I stayed at FAMU was because I knew I could have gone to any other school, but I wanted to stick with them."
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Michael Marot, The Associated Press