NFL teams have always found a way to identify talent from historically black colleges and universities, such as Grambling, Southern, Tennessee State and Jackson State, to name a few. From the 1960s to now, HBCUs filled NFL rosters with players like David "Deacon" Jones, Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Shannon Sharpe, Tarik Cohen and Darius Leonard, among dozens of others.
Like so many things in our current world, though, the HBCU pipeline to the NFL could come to a relative standstill. With the draft just days away, there is a chance only one player from an HBCU, South Carolina State offensive lineman Alex Taylor, could be selected.
This cycle is a down one for HBCU talent, according to multiple people affiliated with NFL teams, postseason bowls and HBCU programs. But the lack of post-season exposure has only complicated matters for these prospects.
"It's going to be tough," said Tennessee State wide receiver/returner Chris Rowland, winner of the Deacon Jones Award as the Black College Player of the Year. "For guys to not get bowl game invites and not do a pro day will hurt. It's going to hurt us because of not being able to do workouts. There will be less numbers of FCS players to get drafted or get signed."
The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancelation of almost all pro days, on-site visits and the first ever NFL-sponsored HBCU combine, which was slated for March 27-28. Players nationwide at all levels -- as well as the teams scouting them -- have been impacted.
But for the nearly 50 prospects from historically black colleges, the HBCU combine was an opportunity to showcase themselves in front of scouts who might not have come to see them play in person or requested video, according to league organizers of the event.
"[The HBCU combine] getting canceled didn't stop me from pursuing my goals," said Solomon Muhammad, an All-Southwestern Athletic Conference edge rusher out of Alcorn State. "Everything is still up in the air. I'm just waiting until the draft April 23-25. It doesn't matter if I don't get picked then. I just need to get in the door and put on a uniform. The rest will be up to me."
Florida A&M quarterback Ryan Stanley, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year, was also invited to the HBCU combine, which was to be held at the Miami Dolphins facility in Davie, just a few miles from where he grew up and where he is now living with his parents. Stanley said he also was asked to take part in the University of Miami pro day where he would've thrown to receivers, running backs, tight ends and defensive backs.
Both chances to be seen were squashed by the pandemic.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder was able to stage a virtual workout with a handful of other players at a park in South Florida just days before parks were closed. He said a park ranger watched the workout to make sure there weren't too many people gathered, in light of social distancing recommendations.
"A lot of guys across the nation are in the same position I'm in, so it's not like I'm the only person with missed opportunities," said Stanley,who finished his career at FAMU as the career leader in touchdowns (67), passing yards (8,424) and completions (636). "I stay upbeat and keep a level mind and work and grind. If I get a call of any kind, I have to make sure that I am in shape and that I'm ready."
Rowland earned an invite to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and was awarded the Practice Player of the Week. He was under consideration to be invited to the Senior Bowl, but the talent and depth at wide receiver left no room, said Jim Nagy, the executive director of the event.
"At the end of the day, I'm not going to be a first-, second- or third-round pick, so from that point on, it's about guys being on special teams," Rowland said. "I was [highly decorated] in college as a returner and that will be my job coming in. The receiver position will come next. I want to be a receiver, but I know what my job is and that's to make the team, find a way to stay."
Just 5-7, 185 pounds, Rowland's stature and catch radius are his biggest knocks. He earned Ohio Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors after producing 104 receptions and 1,437 receiving yards, while leading the OVC with 2,110 all-purpose yards. His reception total broke the HBCU record set by Mississippi Valley State's Jerry Rice (103) in 1984.
Yeah, that Jerry Rice.
Rowland and Muhammad said they and/or their agents, have heard from multiple NFL teams, with Rowland saying the outreach has been more than he expected. Rowland, Muhammad and Stanley have each sent videos of themselves staging some form of pro day -- 40 times, three-cone drills, receiving and throwing drills, coverage drills -- to NFL teams.
None said they'd be discouraged or stop pursuing their dream of making it to the NFL if they weren't to get drafted. But the uncertainty about offseason programs makes trying to sign on as an undrafted free agent add even more complex.
With the league and most states currently limiting social gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody knows when players will be able to join their teams. Offseason workouts, where many undrafted players catch coaches' attention, are on hold, indefinitely.
Two NFL assistant coaches said a lack of offseason programs could be bad for undrafted players and even worse for players seeking tryouts to get into minicamps. One assistant coach estimated that each year, roughly two tryout players earn minicamp invites. But this year, there might not be time for those tryouts.
Should there be just a short period of workouts before training camps begin, those coaches said all players, but especially the unknown, undrafted rookies, better be in shape and get coaches to notice them right away. Practice reps usually are split evenly among all players until after the first preseason game. Then, players who might end up on the final roster start getting more looks, one assistant coach said.
"Just give me a jersey and I'll be ready to go," Muhammad said. "You have to love the game of football."
Unlike some of the high-profile draft prospects whose agencies pay for them to work out with private trainers, hopefuls like Stanley, Rowland and Muhammad don't have that luxury. With the training facilities at their universities closed due to the coronavirus, the three NFL hopefuls are working out in their garages, running through their neighborhoods and finding whatever equipment they can to maintain, if not enhance, their strength and conditioning.
None see any of these unforeseen circumstances as roadblocks, though.
"At this point, you just have to find a way," Rowland said.