USFL draft stockpiles HBCU talent ahead of Legacy Bowl


During this week’s USFL draft, all eight teams selected at least one player from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The New Jersey Generals led the charge by grabbing a league-high five players from HBCU schools — half of the team’s 10 selections in Tuesday’s draft.

Daryl Johnston, executive director of football operations for the USFL, and James Popp, director of player administration, were both on hand for the HBCU combine at the New Orleans Saints‘ indoor facility in Metairie, Louisiana on Monday, which included 30 scouts from most NFL teams to evaluate 100 draft-eligible players on hand.

[2023 USFL Draft recap: 80 players selected across 10 rounds]

The HBCU Legacy Bowl, an All-Star game showcasing draft-eligible players from HBCUs, takes place on Saturday at Tulane University’s Yulman Stadium.

The Memphis Showboats took the first HBCU player on Tuesday, selecting Jackson State cornerback Isaiah Bolden No. 11 overall in the second round.

Edge rusher Isaiah Land out of Florida A&M was picked in the fifth round by the Pittsburgh Maulers, while the Houston Gamblers nabbed Alabama State cornerback Keenan Isaac in the sixth round and the New Orleans Breakers took Virginia State running back Darius Hagans in the seventh round.

The Michigan Panthers (OLB Andrew Farmer II, Lane College, eighth round), the Birmingham Stallions (OL Mark Evans II, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, eighth round) and the Philadelphia Stars (LB Dre Terry, Alabama A&M, 10th round) closed out the HBCU selections by other USFL teams in this week’s college draft.

However, the highlight was the New Jersey Generals taking five players from HBCU schools, including receiver J.J. Holloman in the third round out of Tennessee State, Jackson State cornerback De’Jahn Warren in the fifth round, Texas Southern safety Derrick Tucker in the sixth round, defensive end Jermaine McDaniel out of North Carolina A&T in the seventh round and defensive back Rey Estes out of Grambling State in the 10th and final round.

Generals offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Steven Smith was a key part of the draft process for New Jersey, along with GM Billy Devaney and head coach Mike Riley. Smith attended a HBCU as a freshman at Langston University. His first college coaching job was at Virginia State University, and he also spent six years at Albany State and coached at Tennessee State.

“I have extensive experience at Black colleges,” Smith said. “It helped me build my career and get me to the place where I’m at now. And it wasn’t just me. We said we wanted to look at the Legacy Bowl and the HBCU combine to see what guys would be effective and help us move forward in what we are trying to get done. And we found some guys.”

Smith said Holloman’s polished route running in individual drills and his ability to go get the football jumped out during the combine.

“He’s a big-bodied guy who can run and uses his hands well,” Smith said. “He had a great combine. When you watched his combine, he put up great numbers and especially did a good job tracking the ball, pulling that ball out of the air, and using his hands.”

McDaniel flashed the potential to develop into a productive pass-rusher as a pro, according to Smith.

“He’s a speed rush end,” Smith said. “He can go. He gets a little out of control at times, but that’s something we can build on. He has all the intangibles to be a great pass-rusher.”

The Generals talked with every player they drafted about exhausting their NFL options before figuring out what awaits them in the USFL, including potential inclusion in this year’s upcoming NFL draft. 

“I had a conversation with every last guy, explaining to them that we’re not trying to take away their NFL opportunity,” Smith said. “What we want them to do is go through the process — every young man deserves that because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

“And once they go through the process, if something doesn’t go the way they want it to go, we let them know that they will have a home with the Generals, to be able to come in and compete for a spot.”

Smith said he appreciates what the Legacy Bowl and combine provided for HBCU athletes — a chance to show what they can do on a bigger stage. 

“It means a lot to them,” Smith said. “Having coached at an HBCU school, nobody is guaranteed a pro day. A lot of times what happens is unless you have a top-tier athlete at your program on the HBCU level, there are not many scouts that are going to show up at the pro day, or you’re going to have to go to someone else’s pro day. … This HBCU combine is unbelievable. We ended up signing one of the running backs out of there last year, Kingston Davis. He’s on our roster right now as a running back. Kingston is going to be a big part of what we do this year. He’s going to compete at the running back position.” 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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