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2024 NFL Draft: Eric Smith, Loobert Denelus, Davius Richard among early standouts at HBCU Legacy Bowl

NEW ORLEANS -- "Opportunity" is the buzzword among players, coaches and organizers at the third annual HBCU Legacy Bowl practices, leading up to Saturday's all-star showcase game (4 p.m. ET on NFL Network and NFL+) that will feature the top 100 draft-eligible prospects from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Curiosity, though, might be an even more appropriate word after Monday's HBCU Combine and two days of practices in helmets and shoulder pads.

NFL scouts -- there were roughly 70 present on Monday, when 45 participants went through typical combine drills -- are curious if any of these players can help their respective rosters. Reps from all 32 teams have attended practices, as well.

Players have asked what it takes to get to the next level -- and stay there. Coaches of these teams are seeing if they can put enough things in place in a short amount of time to properly showcase these young men when the 2024 Allstate HBCU Legacy Bowl kicks off at Tulane University's Yulman Stadium.

So far, there are a handful of players with years of experience and tape -- and a few days of good practice showings -- to positively address some of the curiosity that's hanging over this week. Let's take a look at some of the standouts.

Eric Smith, CB, Florida A&M: Smith ran consecutive sub-4.4 40s at the combine and has shown to be sticky in coverage. He's 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, so not the biggest cover man, but he comes from a loaded Rattlers roster that won the Southwestern Athletic Conference and the Celebration Bowl. Speed and attitude can't be coached.

Loobert Denelus, DT, Benedict College: The back-to-back Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year has been dominant and disruptive, literally ruining much of the offensive reps Team Robinson has tried to execute in practice. At 6-foot, 260 pounds, the Division II product doesn't have ideal size, but he could become a headache after spending some time in an NFL strength program, given his natural ability and high IQ.

Jeblonski Green, DT, South Carolina State: Green admits he gained too much weight during this past season, playing around 285-290 pounds at 6-1. He mainly lined up on the defensive interior, but didn't live up to expectations. He told me he's lost at least 20 pounds. He's been practicing at all three spots on the interior D-line this week and has been a difference maker. He's physically built like fellow South Carolina State alum Javon Hargrave, whom Green said he speaks to "all the time." According to Green, Hargrave told him to "just keep my head down and grind."

John Huggins, S, Jackson State: No prospect here looks more the part of an NFL player than Huggins (6-2, 211). Two NFL personnel officials told me at the combine that they were there specifically to see the Jackson State product. He didn't disappoint at the combine and has shown supreme athleticism, instincts and skills playing mainly as an in-the-box safety. Huggins started his career at Florida, but was dismissed for off-the-field issues.

Davius Richard, QB, North Carolina Central: The two-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year had a strong combine performance and has thrown the ball with more instinct, accuracy and touch than any other quarterback at this event. The respect he has from players on both teams is obvious; they often seek him out with questions or for conversation. The 6-3, 220-pounder is all business, too. It's typically hard for quarterbacks from HBCUs to get the attention of NFL teams. Richard seems to have done that.

Ian Wheeler, RB/KR/PR, Howard; Taymon Cooke, WR/KR/PR, North Carolina A&T; Brandon Codrington, CB/KR/PR, North Carolina Central: One of the best ways for small-college players to make NFL rosters is via special teams contributions, and these three return men are dangerous playmakers. College all-star games generally don't place a ton of emphasis on the kicking game, but there are functional in-game plans to allow punt returns at the Legacy Bowl in order to showcase these big-play threats. Codrington also has turned a lot of heads with a strong combine showing and extra feistiness in pass coverage.

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