HBCU Players Nab Two NFL Draft Spots, 12 Become Free Agents
Written by Roscoe Nance, Special to BlackAmericaWeb.com Thursday, 02 May 2013 15:41
HBCUs had an underwhelming presence in the 2013 NFL Draft as only two Black College athletes were chosen. The New Orleans Saints chose University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff offensive tackle Terron Armstead in the third round, and the Detroit Lions selected Florida A&M linebacker Brandon Hepburn in the seventh round.
The good news, however, is the quality of the athletes from HBCUs who were drafted outdistances the quantity of Black College players who were picked by a wide margin. Armstead and Hepburn, who head to their respective rookie camps next weekend, both are likely to make their teams’ rosters later this summer.
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told a NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan that Armstead will have an opportunity to contribute immediately at left tackle; Hepburn will compete for a backup spot in the Lions’ linebacker corps that lost former Hampton University standout Justin Durant, the starter last season, to the Dallas Cowboys via free agency.
“Everybody knows the Saints got a steal getting that kid (Armstead) in the third round,’’ says ESPN College Football Analyst and former NFL quarterback Jay Walker. “They’re talking about him competing for the starting job right away. They don’t allow a rookie to come in and compete for a starting offensive line position unless they know they got something. He was ranked anywhere from the first round to the third round (before the draft). Getting him in the third round was a steal.’’
Armstead, 6-5, 306 pounds, has the speed, size and athleticism that personnel executives crave in offensive linemen in today’s NFL. His draft stock soared when he ran an unthinkable 4.71 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in February. It was the fast time of any offensive lineman in this year’s draft class and the best for an offensive lineman since 2006, according to NFL.com. In addition, 34.5-inch vertical leap was the second-best for an offensive lineman in the last four years.
The Saints’ starting left tackle job is there for the taking after Jermon Bushrod jumped to the Chicago Bears in free agency. The position has a tradition of excellence with the Saints. They have had Pro Bowl caliber players – Kyle Turley, Jamaal Brown and Hall of Famer Willie Roaf in addition to Bushrod – at that position all but three seasons since 1994.
Walker says Armstead should continue the tradition because of his size and speed.
“He can be a pro bowl guy,’’ Walker says. “If you’re going to try to block somebody coming off the edge like (Dallas Cowboys linebacker) DeMarcus Ware or (Atlanta Falcons defensive end) Osi Umenyiora you got to have a tackle that can move, somebody who is quick enough to get in their way. Jason Pierre Paul, these guys are the real fast freaks of nature. The league has shown that in order to block a freak you have to be a freak yourself.’’
Armstead is freakishly athletic. In addition to being All-SWAC for three years in football, he was an eight-time SWAC champion in track and field shot, hammer throw and discus
“I have the confidence in myself that I can potentially be the starter," Armstead told media following the draft. “But I know I have a hill to climb.’’
As a seventh-round draft pick, the hill that Hepburn will have to climb is a bit steeper than what is ahead for Armstead. But the 6-3, 240-pounder has the assets to get over the hump. Hepburn had a solid showing at the Combine, where he ran a 4.68 40, had 21 reps in the 225-pound bench press and a 32-inch vertical jump.
Whatever Hepburn may lack in skills, he makes up for in spades with his intelligence, intensity and effort. He came to Florida A&M on an academic scholarship and walked on with the football team as a tight end. He red-shirted his freshman season and ended his career as an All-MEAC pick. In addition, he graduated in four years with a degree in Biochemistry. Last season he took graduate courses in Florida A&M’s School of Business and Industry while pursuing an MBA.
“When you got a guy like that, who’s a walk-on and molds himself into NFL caliber player,’’ Walker says, “that’s a guy that’s got a good chance of making the team.’’
Walker says the big advantage for Hepburn is his smarts.
“It’s going to be his intelligence that gets him over the top,’’ Walker says. “He’s the guy that can figure out what the offense is trying to do him and not make the same mistakes over and over again. That’s what gets a lot of rookies cut. If you make the same mistake twice, they’re thinking, ‘Okay, he’s not going to get it.’ It’s a very fast and steep learning curve that you have to have. His intelligence, that’s what’s going to be the decision-maker for him. Because of his intelligence, I think he’ll be able to persevere.’’
Hepburn is well-rounded, and he was involved in a number of activities outside of football while at Florida A&M. He served as president of Florida A&M’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and volunteered at homeless shelter in Tallahassee. As an undergraduate he was involved in a cancer research project, and he was selected to a team of college students from across the nation who gathered for the American Chemical Society Conference in San Diego to discuss methods of curing cancer.
He was selected to the 2012 Allstate American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team for his contributions beyond the gridiron.
Hepburn had a stellar senior season with 86 tackles – 9.5 for loss – 5.5 sacks, seven pass breakups and a forced fumble. He is philosophical about being a seventh-round draft pick that isn’t a lock to make the Lions’ roster even though he was rated No. 12 among 132 inside linebackers by one scouting service prior to the draft.
“It’s every player’s dream and aspiration that the body of work they put in will merit them a being high draft selection,’’ he says. “But I understand that throughout the history of the NFL Draft and the way things pan out through players’ careers, it’s not about where you’re drafted or who you go to, it’s about who you are. I tried to keep that rolling in my mind throughout the draft process. I did know if given an opportunity to play I was going to put forth my best effort, get to work early, stay late and really be professional. I believe I’ll be an asset to that organization.’’
Given his speed and intensity, Hepburn’s best shot at making an immediate contribution on special teams. But with Durant having moved on Dallas, the Lions have an opening at an outside linebacker spot in their 3-4 alignment. Florida A&M also ran a 3-4 defense, but Hepburn played inside linebacker, and a position change would be a hurdle that he would have to overcome to earn a roster spot.
“There are a ton of hurdles every rookie has to overcome,’’ he says. “The challenges are ever present. God is good he’ll see me through I have full confidence that I will be able to emerge victorious. There is a myriad of things I could mention (as hurdles to be overcome). It’s all about putting in the work and being professional. Rather than focusing on exactly what it is, saying I have to overcome this or I have to overcome that – I don’t burden myself with that type of drudgery – I take things as they come. Whatever challenge presents itself, I try to adjust to it and move on.’’
The trend in recent years has been for NFL teams to quickly sign undrafted Black College players to contracts immediately following the draft and bring them to their rookie camps. This year’s undrafted free agents from HBCUs include:
Sherman Carter, C, Tennessee State, San Francisco 49ers.
Roger Gaines, OT, Tennessee State, Baltimore Ravens.
Jakar Hamilton, FS, South Carolina State, Dallas Cowboys.
Kentrell Harris, DE, Virginia Union, Oakland Raiders.
Travis Harvey, WR, Florida A&M, Tennessee Titans.
Jamaal Johnson-Webb, OT, Alabama A&M, Arizona Cardinals.
Terren Jones OT, Alabama State, Atlanta Falcons.
Padric Scott, NT, Florida A&M, Arizona Cardinals.
Vernon Kearney; CB, Lane, Buffalo Bills.
Keith Pough, LB, Howard, Buffalo Bills.
Kaderius Lacey, RB Alabama A&M, Kansas City Chiefs.
KJ Stroud, WR, Bethune-Cookman, New York Jets.
Travis Tarpley, WR, Delaware State, Detroit Lions.
Brandon Thurmond, OLB, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Atlanta Falcons.
A number of Black College Athletes have been invited to attend rookie camps with the opportunity to earn contracts with strong performances. They include:
Justin Blash, DT, Albany State, New York Giants.
Jamal Giddens, LB, Norfolk State, Green Bay Packers.
Nathan Hoyte, RB, Albany State, New Orleans Saints.
Greg Jenkins, QB/WR, Alabama State. Oakland Raiders.
Joseph LeBeau, DE, Jackson State, St. Louis Rams.
Saeed Lee, CB, Alabama State, Atlanta Falcons.
Rico Richardson, WR, Jackson State, Kansas City Chiefs.
Kejuan Riley, FS, Alabama State, Atlanta Falcons.
Ronnie Tubbs, WR, Alabama State, New Orleans Saints.