The highly anticipated NFL Draft begins Thursday, April 28. Two state players to watch are Malik Willis and Will Adams.
A gifted, dual-threat quarterback from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Willis is likely a first-round pick.
Adams, a safety from Hermitage High School in Henrico County and Virginia State University, is much further away, but could hear his name called on the third day.
The 21st century NFL Draft record for athletes from historically black schools is poor, but Adams turned a lot of heads at the HBCU Combine in Mobile, Alabama, in late January.
Willis and Kenny Pickett, the University of Pittsburgh ACC Player of the Year, are expected to be the first two quarterbacks selected. Matt Corral of the University of Mississippi is another one who should be selected in the first two rounds.
6-foot, 225-pound Willis, a native Georgian who transferred to Liberty University from Auburn University, threw for 2,857 yards and 27 touchdowns last season, while rushing for 878 yards and 13 more affected.
Willis was MVP of the Cure Bowl in 2020 and the Lending Tree Bowl last fall. He’s been compared to Russell Wilson, and many agree he has a shot at being the NFL’s next outstanding black quarterback.
Liberty already has a first-round draft pick. In 1990, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Flames tight end Eric Green in the first round; he was chosen 21st overall.
Adams was a four-year starter at VSU under coach Reggie Barlow and won the All-CIAA last fall with 61 tackles in nine games and sticky fly-paper-style pass coverage.
Majoring in electrical engineering, Adams was a show stealer at HBCU Combine with his top notch skills. 6-foot-1, 186-pound Adams ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds, completed 21 reps of the bench press at 225 pounds, recorded a 10-foot-3 standing wide jump and a jump vertical 40.5 inches.
He hopes to become the VSU Trojans’ first NFL rookie since Trenton Cannon went to the New York Jets in the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Before Cannon, VSU’s last recruit was Kelvin Kinney in 1996 in the sixth round by the Washington NFL team.
Overall, there has only been one recruit from an HBCU in the past two years. Even if Adams’ name is not called, he could be a high-priority free agent.
Party time: The NFL Draft has become almost like a mini Super Bowl for serious fans. In some ways, the draft is even more appealing because all 32 teams are involved and not just the Super Bowl finalists.
First to go: The Jacksonville Jaguars will likely start by taking one of two defensive linemen, Aidan Hutchinson from the University of Michigan or Travon Walker from the University of Georgia.
HBCU hopefuls: Besides VSU’s Adams, one player to watch will be Alabama A&M University quarterback Aqeel Glass. The 6-foot-5 Glass was twice SWAC Player of the Year and twice Deacon Jones Player of the Year, an award given to the top HBCU player in the nation.
What the 5-foot-7, 175-pound Ezra Gray lacks in size, he makes up for in speed and elusiveness. The Alabama State University standout could make the NFL a running back/slot/kick returner combo. He reminds some of former North Carolina A&T State University mini-back Tarik Cohen, who played with the Chicago Bears.
Fayetteville State University passer Keyshawn James is another to catch the eye of the NFL scout. The 6-foot-3, 280-pound All-CIAA pick had 23.5 tackles for losses last season with 10.5 sacks, seven quarterback rushes and four forced fumbles.
Story: This will be the 87th NFL Draft and times have changed. Before the NFL paid big money, the very first pick in the 1936 draft, by the Philadelphia Eagles, was University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger.
Berwanger couldn’t come to an agreement with the Eagles who then traded his rights with the Chicago Bears. When Chicago couldn’t sign him either, Berwanger ditched his pads and went to work for a rubber company in Chicago.
The stakes are higher now. Last year’s first draft pick, Clemson University quarterback Trevor Lawrence, has signed a four-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars worth $36.8 million, including 24 .1 million guaranteed.