MOBILE, Ala. -- Saturday marked the NFL's first Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Combine. Held in partnership with the Senior Bowl, the event provided exposure and opportunity to draft prospects who deserve a chance to prove they can play at the next level.
All 32 teams were represented on an unusually cold weekend in Mobile, with evaluators spending Friday interviewing and measuring 39 prospects from 22 different HBCUs. On Saturday, a large group of scouts spent several hours testing and working out the NFL hopefuls at the University of South Alabama Jaguar Training Center.
Several league executives, including Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent and Director of Football Development Kevin Boothe, helped lead the effort to make Saturday's event a reality. There will be ongoing conversations in the weeks to come about how to make it even better for players and scouts, but this was an important start.
The main goal for players was simple: Open eyes and force teams to go back to study their game tape. Here are five prospects who stood out.
Virginia State DB Will Adams
Adams (6-foot-1, 186 pounds) took the crown for best performance, forcing observers to look twice at each other with wide eyes after he posted a 10-foot-3 broad jump, 40.5-inch vertical, 21 reps on the bench press and a 4.57 40-yard dash, per Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy.
Former NFL cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a two-time Pro Bowl selectee, was one of four HBCU legends who were a resource for prospects during the event, and he came away very impressed by what he saw from Adams.
"That man has some juice. He's explosive," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "That was smooth. Exactly how you want to see a DB get out of breaks."
Adams, a four-year starter at Virginia State, also was impressive in the three-cone drills and showed fluidity in defensive back drills. VSU head coach Reggie Barlow raved about him to scouts as a player to watch out for and a very good person. Then he followed with the sort of performance that had several scouts trying to get a word in with him during and following his workout.
"He stole the show," Nagy said. "He's looked good at every drill and in the workouts. Every scout is talking about him."
Alabama State RB Ezra Gray
Gray had some of the most eye-popping numbers among offensive players with a 10-foot-3 broad jump that tied Adams for the best of the day. He also posted a 38.5-inch vertical jump. He didn't run the 40-yard dash, as he's recovering from a slight hamstring tweak, but he looked impressive catching passes and running routes during positional drills.
A speedy, undersized running back, Gray mentioned scouts most wanted to see if he could catch the ball out of the backfield and from the slot. He also stressed to teams that he could contribute on special teams as a kick returner, punt returner or coverage player.
"It a great experience. I was a little apprehensive about the HBCU Combine at first because of the quick turnaround (after the season)," Gray said. "But I looked at this like our opportunity as under-the-radar players to show we belong in the NFL. So many HBCU players before us didn't get this chance. I'm grateful. It was very important to show them my versatility."
Gray said he expects to post a time in the 4.2 or 4.3 range when he does run the 40-yard dash.
North Carolina A&T RB Jah-Maine Martin
One scout suggested to me that Martin (5-10, 211 pounds) was the best draft prospect attending the HBCU Combine and mentioned he was impressed with what he saw from him catching the ball in positional drills on Saturday.
Martin didn't test, choosing to wait until his pro day when he has more time to give his best, but he looked to be the most fluid pass-catcher among running backs, at one point making a leaping, finger-tip grab. He described himself as a downhill, one-cut runner.
He led the FCS with 23 touchdowns in 2019, averaging 7.7 yards per carry that season. His production dropped off in 2021, which he partly attributed to playing through a sprained MCL for most of the season. Martin said he's 95 percent healthy now.
Florida A&M G Keenan Forbes
NFL Network analyst and former NFL general manager Scott Pioli loves scouting "the big boys" as he calls them, and his favorite this weekend was Forbes.
"Loose in his hips, bent well, moved well, changed direction well. He's clearly a guard," Pioli said from the event on Saturday.
Forbes was named first-team HBCU All-American at right guard in both of his seasons as a full-time starter at Florida A&M. And he helped himself this weekend.
Southern WR Marquis McClain
McClain's impressive size and fluidity stood out in receiver drills. He also recorded a 10-foot-2 broad jump. McClain began his career at Auburn before transferring to Southern, and perhaps his traits will lead an NFL team to consider giving him an opportunity.
WISDOM FROM LEGENDS
Nearly 10 percent of the legends in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (34 players) played for HBCUs, a sign of the huge stamp HBCU alums have made on the league.
However, only one player from an HBCU has been drafted over the last two years. The hope is events like the HBCU Combine will make it easier for teams to get the information needed to bring in HBCU players, whether via the draft or as undrafted free agents.
On Saturday, Hall of Fame defensive back Aeneas Williams was among the NFL legends relishing this moment for HBCU players to show their talent in a specialized event for them with every team represented. Williams, who starred at Southern before he became an eight-time Pro Bowler, mentioned he felt hope for the future with events like the HBCU Combine and relayed to players the importance of taking advantage of this opportunity.
Another NFL legend, Green Bay Packers all-time leading receiver Donald Driver, shared a powerful personal story with the draft prospects on Friday night, letting them know he begged to get into the NFL Scouting Combine 23 years ago, to no avail. The former Alcorn State star mentioned it disappointed and motivated him. But he eventually succeeded. He stressed to them the importance of their opportunity to force their way onto the radar for NFL teams, but also encouraged them to enjoy the moment.