NEW ORLEANS -- Xavier Smith, the HBCU All-American from Florida A&M, hadn't made it to the sideline after Wednesday's practice wrapped up before an NFL scout from a playoff team walked quickly to beat another scout to strike up a conversation with the wide receiver prospect. It wasn't the first time that team had chatted up Smith during the opening day of practice for the HBCU Legacy Bowl. It might not be the last time, either, before the 2023 NFL Draft (April 27-29 in Kansas City, Missouri).
In fact, Smith's had scouts buzzing since his showing during Monday's HBCU Combine at the New Orleans Saints' facility in Metairie, Louisiana, where the wideout posted a pair of sub-4.4 40-yard dashes and looked natural running routes and catching passes. He continued to turn heads during Wednesday's padded practice at Yulman Stadium on Tulane's campus, the site of Saturday's HBCU Legacy Bowl, which will be broadcast live on NFL Network at 4 p.m. ET.
More than 30 scouts from most NFL teams -- along with others from the USFL, XFL and CFL -- showed up to look at 100 draft-eligible players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities as they try to land the next James Houston IV, Joshua Williams, Cobie Durant or De'Shaan Dixon, former HBCU stars who just finished up Year 1 in the NFL. The success of those rookies -- and others on NFL practice squads -- seems to have re-invigorated NFL interest in players from HBCUs after years of relative isolation from the draft ranks.
That was the reason why HBCU and NFL legends Doug Williams and James "Shack" Harris started the HBCU Legacy Bowl in 2021. The exposure and opportunity not only highlights the talent that continues to grace the fields at HBCUs, but also gives the teams that invested in those players a return on their investment.
There still is a long way to go in getting HBCU players due notice, as Arkansas-Pine Bluff offensive lineman Mark Evans II and Florida A&M linebacker Isaiah Land were the only two HBCU prospects invited to the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine (Feb. 28 through March 6 in Indianapolis). Even so, multiple NFL and USFL scouts said the group of players at the 2023 HBCU Legacy Bowl is more talented than last year's inaugural group, meaning there are more players who have the chance to make NFL rosters.
In addition to Smith, here are six more prospects garnering attention this week in NOLA:
De'Jahn "Nugget" Warren, CB, Jackson State (6-foot, 180 pounds): The former Georgia commit who flipped to Jackson State under former coach Deion Sanders has performed to his athletic billing this week, matching up well against FAMU's Smith at times and using his size and speed to disrupt passing lanes. He's interviewed with roughly half of the NFL's 32 teams.
Andrew Farmer, DE, Lane College (6-4, 260): One of the first things scouts assess in small-school players: Does he meet the eye test? Farmer passes with flying colors. He's also been unblockable. A dominant player on the Division II level who operates consistently at a high level, Farmer also volunteered to play on every special teams unit this week. NFL teams have noticed that team-first approach from a highly talented player.
Darius Hagans, RB, Virginia State (6-0, 207): The standout CIAA product got everyone's attention with his 4.4 40 speed at the HBCU Combine. After putting on the pads and showing physicality, burst and good hands catching the ball in the wind, he's only helped his pro football chances.
Tyler King, RB, Edward Waters (6-0, 188): Some teams have high expectations for this small-school, big-time player. Other teams aren't sure about his hands and some of his fundamentals, but those are said to be coachable fixes. His talent and attitude are what's most important at this stage.
Joshua Pryor, DL, Bowie State (6-5, 255): The star of the week thus far. Absolutely unblockable on Day 1 of practice Wednesday. The Bowie State star's ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage and get to CIAA quarterbacks has translated to practice here in New Orleans. His burst, tenacity and potential for physical/overall growth have NFL teams eager to find out more about him.
JJ Holloman, WR, Tennessee State (6-3, 215): Just an absolute physical specimen who, at times, overmatches opponents. The former Georgia Bulldog was dismissed from the program after an alleged assault and will have to convince teams he has learned and grown. Talent-wise, he's one of the most gifted players at this showcase.
A few more players NFL teams have shown interest in: Jermaine McDaniel Jr., DE, North Carolina A&T (6-3, 240); Brandon Barnes-Brown, CB, Fayetteville State (5-9, 180); Cameron Peterson, DL, Southern (6-5, 270); Rey Estes, DB, Grambling (6-0, 170); Isiah Cox, WR, Alabama A&M (5-11, 185).