This should be a huge season for HBCU football in the MEAC and the SWAC.
Both leagues return a solid crop of players from last season, and there is talent at just about every position.
In fact, a strong case can be made that these two conferences boast some of the best players in college football. In the seventh annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney -- featuring Bethune-Cookman and Prairie View A&M at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Sept. 4 -- many of the conferences' top players will take center stage. Prairie View A&M's defensive back Moses Ellis and offensive lineman James Dekle are included in this bunch, as are Bethune-Cookman LBs Reggie Sandilands and Ryan Lewis, and defensive lineman Ryan Davis and offensive lineman Alex Monroe.
NFL scouts know that HBCU players have a rich history in the league (three players -- Green Bay Packers WR Donald Driver and S Nick Collins and Pittsburgh Steelers RB Isaac Redman -- played in Super Bowl XLV). Who will be the next pro stars to come out of the MEAC and SWAC? Here are some of the names sure to be talked about this season.
Best of the MEAC
RB Mike Mayhew, North Carolina A&T
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound running back is an exciting returning senior who opened a lot of eyes last season while averaging 4.9 yards a carry. Mayhew had 221 carries for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns.
RB Asheton Jordan, South Carolina State
Jordan, a junior running back, can run inside as well as outside. At 6-feet, 205 pounds, he keeps the chains moving for the Bulldogs' offense, averaging an impressive 5.7 yards a carry last. He rushed for 622 yards on 105 carries while scoring five TDs last season.
RB Jaashawn Jones, Delaware State
A solid runner between the tackles, Jones runs with power. At 6 feet and 220 pounds, Jones also knows when to cut back against the grain, and picked up 724 yards on 161 carries and scored four TDs last year, averaging 4.5 yards a carry.
WR Justin Wilson, Delaware State
Wilson, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound receiver, led the MEAC in receptions last season with 59. Particularly impressive on third down, Wilson scored 11 TDs to go with his 937 yards.
WR Lennel Elmore, South Carolina State
Elmore, a junior wideout, stands at 6 feet and weighs 185 pounds. His forte is catching the ball in traffic. Translation: He knows how to get open. Elmore had 48 receptions for 595 yards and two TDs last season.
WR Javaris Brown, Hampton
Some receivers bring great hands to the table, others bring precision footwork. Brown (5-foot-1, 190 pounds) is a speed demon who knows how to create space between him and the defender. He had 40 receptions for 639 yards and five TDs last year.
WR Willie Carter, Howard University
Don't judge Carter by his numbers. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior's 29 receptions for 563 yards and three TDs aren't off-the-charts impressive, but everybody knows about his ability, which is highlighted by his 19.3 yards-per-catch average.
OL Alex Monroe, Bethune-Cookman
A terrific run-and-pass blocker, Monroe used his 6-foot-5, 305-pound body and did a spectacular job -- providing QB Matt Johnson time to throw. Monroe's blocking skills helped the Wildcats form one of the country's most potent offenses last season, as the Wildcats averaged 38 points per game.
DL Ryan Davis, Bethune-Cookman
This senior DL relies on strength and quickness to get to the ball. He has good size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) and range from his defensive end position. He had 31 solo and 57 total tackles, with five sacks last season.
DE Pat Washington, South Carolina State
If you're looking to find the best pass-rushing DE in the MEAC, your search is over. Washington, at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, had eight sacks last season. The senior also played the run very well, with 26 solo and 46 total tackles.
LB Ryan Lewis, Bethune-Cookman
Lewis, a senior, has the speed and quickness to close against the run. When rushing the passer, the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder knows how to pick his spots. He had 46 solo and 81 total tackles, along with five sacks, last season.
LB Keith Pough, Howard University
At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, Pough, a junior, is one of the best all-around LBs in the MEAC. Bold statement, yes, but Pough's numbers (59 solo and 100 total tackles and a league-leading 10 sacks last season) firmly back that claim.
LB Allen Stephens, Morgan State
You know those players who are always around the ball? That's Stephens, who is poised to have an even bigger season than he did in 2010. Only a junior, the 6-foot-2, 250-pounder had 34 solo and 65 total tackles, with three sacks.
LB Demarius Folsom, Florida A&M
Consistency at the linebacker position is key, and Folsom is one of Florida A&M's best. The junior had a big impact against the run, with 37 solo and 57 total tackles, and also came up with three sacks last season.
LB Donovan Richard, South Carolina State
If Richard has designs on stepping up his game for his senior year, expect some big things. As a junior, the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder covered a lot of ground against the run for South Carolina State, while doing a solid job rushing the passer. He had 38 solo and 76 total tackles, along with five sacks.
LB Corwin Hammond, Norfolk State
Hammond will be the team leader for the Spartans' defense this season. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, Hammond earned his stripes playing well against the run. He can rush the passer, too, recording three sacks and 76 total tackles (38 solo) last year.
LB Reggie Sandilands, Bethune-Cookman
Sandilands, a senior, made a lot of plays up front, to the tune of 45 solo and 80 total tackles. He (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) and Ryan Lewis formed a great linebacker combination in 2010.
DB Justin Ferrell, North Carolina A&T
At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Ferrell isn't the biggest defensive back around, but that doesn't stop the senior from making plays. The Aggies standout -- who does a nice job of coming up on sweeps -- had 57 solo and 78 total tackles last season.
DB D'Vonte Graham, North Carolina A&T
Graham, a 6-foot, 185-pound junior, is one of the best cover guys in the MEAC. His ability to stay with most receivers reaped dividends, and he led the MEAC with seven INTs last season.
DB Dominique Ellis, South Carolina State
A good open-field tackler, Ellis doesn't miss much in the secondary. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound DB doesn't give up the big play, and had 39 solo and 52 total tackles last year.
Best of the SWAC
QB Casey Therriault, Jackson State
Therriault was second in the nation with 3,436 passing yards. He threw 31 TD passes and rushed for another 10. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he is one of the country's top signal callers.
RB Marcus Wright, Texas Southern
With 1,212 yards on 261 carries and eight TDs last season, Wright, a senior, is easily one of the conference's most explosive running backs, averaging 4.6 yards a carry.
WR Marcellos Wilder, Jackson State
Wilder has good size and quickness. At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, the senior is one of the bigger receivers in the SWAC. Last season was productive with 57 receptions for 726 yards and eight touchdowns.
WR Nick Andrews, Alabama State
Andrews isn't the biggest of receivers -- at 5-foot-9, 170 pounds -- but he knows how to get it done. Using good speed while running great patterns, the senior produced 48 receptions for 627 yards and seven TDs.
WR T.C. McWilliams, Alabama State
McWilliams gives the Alabama State offense a solid pass catcher. He can run the deep routes and showed his worth by averaging 14.5 yards a catch. He had 40 receptions for 579 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
WR Joseph Anderson, Texas Southern
At 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Anderson is a big-play receiver. He had 56 receptions for 818 yards and two TDs last year -- good for 14.6 yards a catch. He knows how to get down the field very quickly.
OL Bennie Peoples, Grambling State
Peoples opened a lot of holes for All-SWAC RB Frank Warren, who led the conference in rushing with 1,537 yards. At 6-foot-2, 283 pounds, Peoples is the anchor for the Tigers' ground attack.
OL James Dekle, Prairie View A&M
Dekle, at 6-foot-2, 275 pounds, moves his feet well and has good blocking techniques against the run and pass. He helped provide running room for RB Donald Babers, who gained 918 yards and scored 10 TDs last year.
OL Terren Jones, Alabama State
Jones is one of the biggest offensive linemen in college football, but he's more than just a big body. His size (6-foot-7, 320 pounds) and range help his blocking.
OL Terron Armstead, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Armstead is another one of the SWAC's big offensive linemen. The junior has the qualities that make for a great O-lineman: good footwork, good lateral movement on running plays and solid pass protection.
OL Sanford Banks, Grambling State
At 6-foot-4, 335 pounds, Banks gives the Grambling State offensive line plenty of power and strength. The junior has tremendous run-blocking skills. Banks and fellow O-lineman Bennie Peoples are two of the best offensive linemen in the SWAC, which should make new coach Doug Williams happy.
OL Chris Browne, Southern
Though still developing as a junior, Browne, at 6-foot-3, 287 pounds, moves well on running plays. He can open up holes in the Southern running game, led by running back Gary Hollimon. He does a good job of pass-protecting as well.
DL Marquis Jackson, Texas Southern
Jackson is an outstanding pass rusher and difficult to block with his size (6-foot-5, 275 pounds) and quickness. The junior had seven sacks, 21 solo tackles and 61 total tackles last season.
DL Kynjee Cotton, Alabama State
A solid tackler, Cotton, the 6-foot-1, 260-pound D-lineman, makes plays on the defensive line. He doesn't give up on the play, and the senior uses his bulk and strength to get to the passer. He had 23 solo and 51 total tackles, including five sacks, last season.
DL Jimmy Daniels, Alabama State
Daniels doesn't let anything get around him. The 6-foot-2, 260-pounder knows how to turn running plays inside, and his numbers (30 solo and 59 total tackles with five sacks) speak volumes.
LB Shomari Clemons, Texas Southern
Clemons is, by far, one of the big reasons Texas Southern won the SWAC title last season. The senior LB had 36 solo and 73 total tackles, and also contributed with 8.5 sacks.
LB Jer-ryan Harris, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Want to see impressive? Harris led the SWAC in total tackles as a freshman with 129 hits. The sophomore also had 50 unassisted tackles, making the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder one of the bright young players in the league.
LB Brandon Roberts, Alabama State
Roberts plays the run as well as any linebacker in the conference, and the 6-foot-2 senior made a lot of plays in the Hornets' run to the SWAC championship game. He had 37 solo and 74 total tackles last season.
DL Donavan Robinson, Jackson State
Robinson was all over the field making plays for Jackson State last season (34 solo and 52 total tackles with 7.5 sacks). At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, he earned his stripes as a sound tackler and decent pass rusher.
FS Kejuan Riley, Alabama State
The best safeties know how to read the play before it happens. That's Riley's forte; he knows how to give help in the secondary, when needed, and at 6-feet, 182 pounds, he uses his size as a good cover guy and open-field hitter. The junior had seven INTs along with 32 solo and 63 total tackles last season.
DB Zack Gallow, Texas Southern
With his great anticipation skills, this senior is capable of picking off a pass at any time. In addition to his five INTs, the 6-foot, 190-pound freelancer had 21 solo and 45 total tackles.
DB Moses Ellis, Prairie View A&M
Are we looking at the next Nick Collins? Ellis, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound senior, is regarded as one of the best cornerbacks in the nation. The All-SWAC standout had a league-leading eight interceptions last season, and added 28 solo and 41 total tackles.
Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. His HBCU Notebook on ESPN.com can be found here. Got a story idea for Hunt? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.