Tennessee State University, known as The Big Blue to its fans, won its 12th Black College Football National Championship in the 2013 season. They can now celebrate for another reason – the school was the only HBCU to have its athletes selected in this year’s NFL Draft.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose four-year starting guard Kadeem Edwards in the fifth round as the 143rd player picked overall. The St. Louis Rams chose center Demetrius Rhaney in the seventh round, the 250th player taken.
“This is huge for the university,’’ Tennessee State coach Rod Reed said. “It’s not often that an HBCU gets this kind of notoriety. I can’t remember the last time an HBCU had two players drafted – not only an HBCU but an FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) school. This is a great day for Black college football and around Tennessee State.’’
Two other Big Blue mainstays, tight end A. C. Leonard and free safety David Van Dyke, signed free agent deals within hours of the draft end on Saturday.
Edwards, 6-4, 313 pounds, and Rhaney, 6-2, 301 pounds, anchored the offensive line for Tennessee State as the Big Blue advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs for the first time since 1999.
Edwards was a 2013 All-American and the Tigers’ Offensive MVP. In addition to being named All-OVC for the third consecutive year.
Edwards played in the Senior Bowl All-Star Game in January and more than held his own against athletes from more high profile schools. His draft stock rose when he impressed scouts and personnel executives at the NFL Draft Combine in February.
He ran a 5.25-second 40-yard dash and did 26 reps at 225 pounds in the bench press. His 34 ? inch arms were the longest at the combine and make him well-suited for pass blocking.
“He’s a great run blocker,’’ Reed said. “But he’s also a good all-round lineman.’’
Edwards excelled in the classroom as well as on the football field. He graduated cum laude in December with a degree in Health and Human Performance after struggling initially to become academically eligible. He was a part-time student and held down a job his first year at Tennessee State.
Rhaney played two seasons at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa, one at tackle and one at guard. He played guard his first year at Tennessee State before moving to center.
His greatest assets are his quickness and agility, which he showcased with an outstanding performance during Tennessee State’s Pro Day. He was clocked at 4.96 and 4.97 in the 40, had a 29-inch vertical jump and a nine-foot broad jump and 24 lifts of 225 pounds on the bench press.
Center is a weak spot on the Rams’ offensive line and projections are Rhaney could eventually become a starter though he is likely to spend the 2014 season on the practice squad.
The Rams’ current center, Scott Wells, is 33 and has missed 13 games the past two seasons due to injuries. The two draftees from Tennessee State matches the total number of athletes from HBCUs picked in 2013 and continues a recent trend that has seen NFL teams shy away from Black colleges.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff offensive lineman Terron Armstead and Florida A&M linebacker Brandon Hepburn were the only athletes from HBCUs chosen in the 2013 draft.South Carolina State safety Christian Thompson was the lone draftee from an HBCU in 2012.
“I am concerned as one who follows Black college football,’’ said American Urban Radio Network Sports Director Ty Miller. “I wonder if the talent level is down or are [NFL scouts] just not looking at the black colleges. I’m not sure what signal that sends. But I do believe there is talent at HBCUs.’’
Tennessee State’s showing in the 2014 draft pales in comparison to the Big Blue’s presence in the lottery during its glory years of the ’60’s and ’70s when “Big John’’ Merritt was coach.
During that time, if only two Tigers were drafted, it was considered a bad year. Consider: In 1974, six Tennessee State players were drafted – five in the first two rounds.
Defensive end Ed “Too Tall’’ Jones was the No. 1 overall pick by the Dallas Cowboys and teammate Waymond Bryant was picked No. 4 overall by the Chicago Bears.
The 2014 draft is an indication of the progress that the Tigers’ have made in recruiting in Reed’s four seasons as coach. Edwards and Rhaney are the first Tiger draftees since 2009, and their first two Tigers chosen in the same draft since 2000.
“A lot of that has to do with the quality of their program,’’ Miller says. “Reed is trying to get them on par with other teams in Ohio Valley Conference.’’
That Leonard dropped to free agent was somewhat surprising as he had a productive college career. He was an All-American in 2013 and a first-team All-OVC with 34 receptions for 441 yards and five touchdowns. He stood out at the combine, where his 4.50 40-yard dash time was tops among tight ends. A highly touted high school recruit, Leonard signed with the University of Florida, playing nine games for the Gators in 2011 and starting four.
But in February of 2012, Leonard was arrested on a misdemeanor battery charge after an altercation with his live-in girlfriend and dismissed from the Florida team. He was also cited in May of 2012 for driving with a suspended license. Those off-the-field transgressions may have come back to haunt him.
“Leonard was never a problem,’’ Reed says. “He has an opportunity,’’ Reed said. “All you can ask is an opportunity.’’
Van Dyke popped up on personnel executive’s radar on the strength of his Pro Day workout. He ran a 4.46 40-yard dash, had a 38 1/2 –inch vertical jump and a 9-foot, 10-inch broad jump. He has tremendous ball skills as evidenced by his four interceptions in 2013.
“He got better and better each year,’’ Reed said, adding that he expects both Leonard and Van Dyke to make their teams’ roster.
Other athletes from HBCUs likely to sign free agent contracts in the coming days include:
* Karim Barton, guard, Morgan State
* Qua Cox, cornerback, Jackson State
* Isaiah Crowell, running back, Alabama State
* Brandon Denmark, linebacker, Florida A&M
* Lee Doss, wide receiver, Southern
* Deron Ferr, strong safety, Fort Valley State
* Carlos Fields Jr., linebacker Winston-Salem State
* Dexter Moody, free safety, Albany State
* Joe Thomas, linebacker, South Carolina State
* Bobby Wenzig, punter, Alabama State
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