The 2023 college football season is finally upon us, and with it, HBCU play begins with the annual Cricket MEAC/SWAC Challenge Kickoff. Saturday's game features a rematch of the 2021 Cricket Celebration Bowl, as Jackson State faces South Carolina State in Atlanta at 7:30 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN App).
Over the past decade, the NFL has made a lot of effort to provide more exposure for HBCU teams and showcase their players across the nation. The HBCU Legacy Bowl and Reese's Senior Bowl HBCU combine have become significant events on the pre-draft calendar for all NFL teams. Only one HBCU player -- Patriots cornerback Isaiah Bolden -- was drafted this April, but we could see more in the 2024 NFL draft.
After talking with numerous coaches, scouts and evaluators around the country, I ranked the top 10 HBCU senior prospects who could get picked next year after another good season. I included players in both the FCS and Division II ranks but excluded underclassmen and recent transfers who didn't play at an HBCU school last season. Here are 10 to watch as the games kick off, including a standout quarterback.
1. Sundiata Anderson, EDGE, Grambling
HT: 6-foot-4 | WT: 250 pounds
Anderson had a breakout 2022 season with 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles in 10 games, and he was voted preseason SWAC Defensive Player of the Year coming into 2023. Four of those seven sacks came in the final four games, so expectations are high this year.
He's a versatile edge rusher who generates a ton of pressure on the quarterback and can win in multiple ways, with the body flexibility to dip and turn the corner past blockers. Anderson also has the skill set to drop in coverage. And while his playing weight hovered around 240 pounds last season, he's reportedly up to 250 this year.
"His ability to get after the quarterback definitely stood out when I watched him on tape," said an AFC area scout. "As a pass-rusher, he's actually somewhat similar to [James] Houston ... but he's bigger, better and more reliable against the run."
I've heard mostly late-round grades for Anderson from scouts, and evaluators will have a Sept. 9 matchup against LSU circled on their calendars as a key game for his draft stock. Grambling hasn't had a defensive player selected since defensive end Jason Hatcher (Cowboys, No. 92 in 2006), but Anderson could be next. Many scouts mentioned he needs to improve his take-on technique against the run, and that could help improve his draft status.
2. Anim Dankwah, OT, Howard
HT: 6-foot-8 | WT: 365 pounds
Dankwah was originally a soccer player during his upbringing in Ghana before moving to Canada, which might have helped his quickness and suddenness. He is massive at 6-foot-8 and 365 pounds, but Dankwah is also a good mover for his size and is able to match the upfield movements of FCS rushers.
He has primarily played left tackle during his career with the Bison, and he seems to get better each season. Dankwah only started playing football in his junior year of high school, so he's still working on the details of pass protection, though his wide frame makes it challenging for defenders to get around. His run-blocking sits atop the positive column on his scouting report, as he displays physicality and an ability to connect and run his feet on contact to get movement on both single- and double-team blocks.
"With those bigger offensive lineman, you always ask, how well do they move?" said an AFC scout. "He shows good movement skills, but I want to see him at an all-star game. That'll be a great test for him because no one in the FCS is getting around him at that size."
Dankwah was a key part in helping Howard win a share of the MEAC for the first time since 1993 last season, and another good year could put him in the draft conversation. Offensive tackle Marques Ogden was the last offensive Bison player drafted, when the Jaguars took him in the sixth round of the 2003 draft. Dankwah is getting a mixture of late-round and undrafted grades right now, but an opportunity to show off his skill set against pass-rushers from different levels of competition at an all-star event could really get him into the Day 3 discussion.
3. Willie Drew, CB, Virginia State
HT: 6-foot | WT: 185 pounds
Drew elected to stay in-state coming out of high school and attend James Madison, where he was used as a rotational player and special-teams contributor. But he opted to transfer to Virginia State following the 2019 season and quickly established himself as the leader of the Trojans' defense. Drew lacked ball production in his first season, but he led the team with five interceptions and 12 passes defensed in a breakout redshirt junior year. Long and aggressive, he is competitive at the catch point and has a knack for finding the ball in the air.
His movement skills show up on tape. He has the speed to carry vertically and can change directions suddenly with receivers at the Division II level. He reportedly ran in the low 4.4s for NFL scouts in the 40-yard dash last spring. Drew has the height, speed and ball production that scouts covet from a small school prospect, but evaluators want to see him truly dominate during his final season with the Trojans. With only one Division I opponent (Norfolk State on Sept. 2) on the schedule, postseason all-star games will also be a big determining factor of his draft status, which is in the fringe Day 3 or undrafted range right now.
4. Davius Richard, QB, North Carolina Central
HT: 6-foot-2 | WT: 220 pounds
Richard got his first game action during the second game of his freshman season, and he hasn't looked back since that moment. He's a dual-threat quarterback who broke program records in 2022 for total offense (3,449 yards) and completions (198) on the way to North Carolina Central's Cricket Celebration Bowl title win. Richard won MEAC Offensive Player of the Year, and he also recorded career-highs in rushing yards (788), passing touchdowns (25) and rushing scores (15). He has enough arm strength to get the ball to all three levels of the field, and his accuracy is improving; his completion percentage jumped from 58.0% as a sophomore to 63.9% as a junior, setting a new single-season school record.
"I went through there last spring, and the coaches raved about his leadership and love for the game," an NFC scout said. "I still want to see him become more consistent as a passer when driving the ball in the intermediate areas and over the middle, though. That UCLA game this year will tell us a lot about his outlook on the next level."
How will Richard respond to a UCLA defense that has a lot of pro-level talent? He's currently a undrafted free agent-level prospect, but a big day against the Bruins could make scouts take notice. Tarvaris Jackson was the last HBCU quarterback to be drafted, taken by the Vikings in the second round of the 2006 draft.
5. Jarveon Howard, RB, Alcorn State
HT: 5-foot-10 | WT: 200 pounds
A potential UDFA candidate, Howard started his career at Syracuse, and his skill set translated to the Alcorn State offense right away when he transferred over in 2022, rushing for 1,270 yards and 12 touchdowns. He recorded 20-plus carries in 10 of the 11 games last season, but he hasn't had double-digit catches in any of his campaigns.
Jarveon Howard rushes in for a 2-yard TD to give the Braves the lead.
A bruising runner and natural tackler-breaker, Howard displays the ability to step through contact and create extra opportunities. He has a compact body frame and enough speed in the open field to reel off explosive plays, but he is a downhill runner who primarily operates out of the pistol. The Braves incorporate a mixture of run schemes, but Howard is best served in a gap/power scheme that pulls blockers.
6. Khalil Baker, S, North Carolina Central
HT: 6-foot | WT: 185 pounds
Arguably the biggest breakout in the FCS ranks last season, Baker led the Eagles in tackles (61) and interceptions (four). He's a versatile and hard-hitting safety who plays from multiple alignments, and he has proven reliable in run support, running the alley and taking good angles to the ball.
His instincts are the best part of his game, as Baker -- another UDFA prospect -- can dissect plays before they happen. He's a see-it-and-attack third-level defender who creates a lot of turnover opportunities because of that ability to diagnose concepts.
7. Kenny Gallop Jr., S, Howard
HT: 6-foot | WT: 210 pounds
An under-recruited prospect, Howard was Gallop's only scholarship offer while coming out of high school -- but he ended up finishing second in the conference in tackles last season (93).
A run-chase-and-hit safety, Gallop primarily plays low and as the overhang defender, so he frequently finds himself around the ball. He packs plenty of pop and had 7.5 tackles for loss in 2022. Gallop is often used as a blitzer and can create disruption in the backfield. It doesn't take long watching his tape to notice his physicality, as he can stack, shed and finish on the perimeter. But he also takes good angles when coming downhill in run support.
The biggest area that scouts want to see improvement? Ball production. Gallop doesn't have an interception over three seasons.
8. Javan Morgan, CB, Florida A&M
HT: 5-foot-10 | WT: 180 pounds
Morgan quickly turned into a star during his first year as a starter in 2022, finishing with 42 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions. He trusts his eyes and is quick-reacting. Morgan diagnoses well in zone but can also step down into the slot to play man against receivers and tight ends. Expected to once again play multiple roles on the back end for the Rattlers' defense, he must take an even bigger step in coverage and become a more consistent finisher as a tackler in the open field. Many scouts think Morgan could transition to nickel corner in the future.
Two pivotal matchups are ahead to open the season: Jackson State (Sept. 3) and South Florida (Sept. 9). Evaluators will be relying heavily on that game tape when projecting Morgan's potential at the next level.
9. Tairiq Stewart, OT, North Carolina A&T
HT: 6-foot-5 | WT: 300 pounds
After attending ASA College right out of high school, Stewart elected to jump to West Virginia after playing two seasons in the JUCO ranks. He then transferred to North Carolina A&T. He has played solely at right tackle for the Aggies and broke out in Year 1 as a full-time starter.
The quick feet and length of Stewart are his biggest assets, as he makes it difficult for pass-rushers to beat him cleanly around the edge. But he's also a physical run-blocker, supporting one of the best rushing attacks in the FCS. He can still improve in his reactions to counter moves and hand placement, as Stewart has a tendency to overset and allow defenders to win on moves to his inside shoulder. More poise in pass sets will be key for his development.
10. Matthew Foster, OT, Virginia State
HT: 6-foot-5 | WT: 315 pounds
One of the top players in the Division II ranks, Foster was named CIAA Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2022. The right tackle has a sufficient frame with more room to grow, and as a pass-protector, he's light on his feet to mirror and match edge rushers. He also has the length to lock out and shut down up-the-field pass-rush attempts.
As a run-blocker, Foster displays awareness and determination as a finisher while running his feet on contact. He just needs to get stronger, as he faces challenges in creating consistent movement. Similar to teammate Willie Drew, evaluators want to see him at a postseason all-star contest and get a sense of how he stacks up against different levels of competition.