Predicting the potential finalists for the Deacon Jones Award is, for the lack of a better term, predictable.
Ever since the Black College Football Hall of Fame (BCFHOF) announced their 2021 Watch List for the Black College Football Player of the Year Award last week — which is made up of 56 candidates from 27 different HBCUs in five different conferences — fans and pundits have started to debate who could win this season’s award.
Over five years, the committee — which consists of three former quarterbacks (Grambling greats James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams and Howard’s Jay Walker) plus a journalist or two – has selected sixteen different finalists to be named the best player in black college football. Of those sixteen players, nine have been (you guessed it) quarterbacks.
Not only do I anticipate there being a signal-caller or two in this season’s finalists grouping for the award, but there is a huge chance that this year’s potential POY will be usual suspects from the last two years.
Alabama A&M QB Aqeel Glass (2021), Alcorn State QB Felix Harper (2019), Southern DL Jordan Lewis (2021), and North Carolina A&T RB Jah-Maine Martin (2019) have all been finalists for the honor in previous seasons. And for the first time in the award’s history, the BCFHOF could have four repeat contenders.
Picking any of those four to be a finalist in late November is easy. Trying to predict candidates outside of the obvious is the road less traveled.
Here are my lists of not-so-obvious choices, sleepers, and players who were snubbed from this fall’s watch list that have a chance to be named a finalist by the committee.
This grouping of contenders is based on the previous voting history of the committee. Did they have a great statistical season? Check. Were you ranked nationally in the top 25 of several statistical categories? Double-check. Did you have a season that mirrored a previous finalist? Even better. But being one of the best teams in HBCU Football helps … a lot. Of the sixteen former finalists, fourteen have been on winning teams.
LB Aubrey Miller Jr., Jackson State
Miller is looking to be only the third defensive player to be named a finalist for the award. Even though he plays alongside LB Keonte Hampton, another potential “Not-So-Obvious Contender”, it was the senior out of Memphis that tied for thirteenth nationally in tackles per game (10.2) during the Spring.
RB Ezra Gray, Alabama State
The senior from Lynn Haven, Florida, not only led the SWAC in total rushing yards (436) and average rushing yards per game (87.2) this past spring, but Gray also finished thirteenth in the nation in all-purpose yards per game (178.4). Do you know who else ranked high nationally in all-purpose yards? 2019 Jones Award winner Chris Rowland.
WR Tyrin Ralph, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Another contender that has a statistical resume that’s like Rowland’s, the wideout from New Orleans ranked third in the nation in all-purpose yards per game in the spring (178.4). The Golden Lions will need a similar output if they want to prove that this past spring wasn’t an anomaly.
WR Xavier Smith, Florida A&M
In 2019, there were 27 wide receivers in the nation that eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark. Five of those came from HBCUs. Of those five, Smith was the lone representative from the MEAC. The redshirt senior from Haines City, Florida, finished fifth in the nation in reception yards per game (105.4), tenth in total receiving yards (1,159), fifteenth in receptions (77), and tied for sixteenth for receiving TDs (11) that season.
WR Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim, Alabama A&M
If AAMU QB Aqeel Glass plans on being the second player to win the Jones award in consecutive seasons, anticipate him relying on the wide receiver from Miramar, Florida, quite often this fall. Ibrahim averaged 89.5 receiving yards per game along with tallying 14 receiving TDs in two seasons with the Bulldogs.
WR Anthony Evelyn, Lane
The committee doesn’t seem to like players from the D2 ranks, with Bowie State’s Amir Hall being the only one to be named a finalist. But don’t count out Evelyn. The wideout from Atlantic Beach, Florida, led the SIAC in receptions per game (5.9), receiving yards per game (84.4), and finished ninth in the nation in all-purpose yards per game in 2019 (164.3YPG).
DL Joshua Pryor, Bowie State
Pryor was one of the best defensive players in D2 football in 2019. With 13 total sacks, the lineman from Baltimore ranked fifth in the nation in total sacks, tied for seventh in sacks per game (1.04), and tied for second in the country in tackles for loss per game (2.1), which helped hold Bulldog opponents to a league-best 16.3 points per contest.
RB Brett Sylve, Kentucky State
In 2019, Sylve led the SIAC in total rushing yards (1,093), ranked thirteenth in the nation in rushing yards per game (109.3), and eighteenth in the nation in all-purpose yards per game (149.44). The tailback from Hammond, Louisiana, also led the conference with nine rushing touchdowns.
QB Skyler Perry, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
Remember what I said about QBs earlier? Well, there were only five QBs that made this year’s watch list. Oddly enough, this Second Team All-SWAC preseason selection was left off this season’s list even though both of his wide receivers made it. If receivers Ralph and Josh Wilks are to gain any serious consideration for the Jones Award this season, it will be reliant on the play of Perry. Oh yeah, the only two snubs for a watch list to be named a Jones Award finalist, Alcorn State’s Felix Harper and FAMU’s Ryan Stanley, were both quarterbacks.
RB Devon Starling, Tennessee State
Remember when I said that the committee likes players that rank high nationally? Well, Starling led all freshmen nationally in the spring and finished 13th overall in average rushing yards per game (92.6). The Antioch, Tennessee, product finished the season 17th in FCS play and second amongst freshmen with 648 rushing yards on 124 carries and three touchdowns. And speaking of being snubbed, there are zero players from Tennessee State on this year’s watch list.
DE Jerry Garner, Mississippi Valley State
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Garner only had 2.0 total sacks in three games this past spring, but this is the same player that led all HBCU defensive players with 9.0 in 2019. This total was enough to have him tied for thirteen in the nation in both total sacks and sacks per game (0.82).
WR Zabrian Moore, Alabama A&M
I guess Moore is the “1-A” in the AAMU receiving corp, but he is easily the Bulldogs’ deep threat, finishing second in the nation this spring in yards per reception (27.9) and receiving yards per game (121.0). The wideout from Tuscaloosa also had a strong campaign in 2019, finishing that season with 1,057 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 58 receptions.
Duane Nash is an HBCU sports expert and operator of The Yard HBCU Sports. You can follow Duane — like 9,500+ dedicated HBCU Sports fans have — on Twitter and Instagram @TheYardHBCU. Duane will give readers weekly insight into what teams will win the big games, which individuals are in contention for big honors ... and much, much more.