History has shown that players from historically black colleges and universities have transformed the sport of football.

From numerous Hall of Fame players such as Jerry Rice and Michael Strahan to current first-team NFL All-Pro selections Tarik Cohen and Darius Leonard, these players have shown that HBCU stars are essential to the success of many NFL franchises.

So for many NFL executives, being able to identify their next breakout black college star is crucial.

“The one thing that I’ve learned is that you can’t overlook those schools,” said Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. “There is talent down there, and every year someone is coming up through the ranks in those schools.”

Conversations with multiple NFL general managers revealed that they emphasized the importance of being able to find talent that can help improve their rosters, no matter what school they come from.

“I think it [HBCU talent] is extremely important. We are trying to find talent no matter what level, whether it’s Division III, HBCU, Division I or NAIA,” said Spielman. “That’s our job as talent evaluators, to go out and find that talent, and it doesn’t matter who they are or where they come from.”

The Undefeated’s top players watchlist:

Brian Cavicante

Junior linebacker — Delaware State

Delaware State University

Brian Cavicante is the 2019 preseason selection for the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference (MEAC) Defensive Player of the Year after a stellar 2018 campaign that resulted in him being second in the conference in tackles (89) and third in the conference in tackles per game (8.1). The Delaware State standout also finished second in the conference in tackles for loss (17) and tied for third in the MEAC in solo tackles (50). Cavicante was an All-MEAC first-team selection in 2018.

Jequez Ezzard

Senior wide receiver — Howard

Howard University

Jequez Ezzard led the FCS with 26.6 yards per reception in 2018. His contributions helped propel a Howard team that ranked 15th in the FCS in total offense and 16th in the FCS in passing offense. The dynamic playmaker totaled 1,064 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Ezzard is the only HBCU receiver to possess an FCS ranking of 17th or better in receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, receiving yards per game and yards per reception.

Devon Hunt

Senior linebacker — Shaw

Shaw University

Shaw University’s Devon Hunt is the returning Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Defensive Player of the Year. After a highly productive 2018 season, he returns to lead the Bears as an All-CIAA first-team selection. The linebacker ranked first in the conference with 98 tackles last season and recorded a league-leading 9.8 tackles per game. Hunt also led the conference in sacks and ranked fourth in the CIAA in tackles for loss per game.

Noah Johnson

Redshirt senior quarterback — Alcorn State

Alcorn State University

Noah Johnson returns to lead the Alcorn State offense after an impressive 2018 campaign. The dynamic playmaker, who led the Braves to a Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championship and an Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl appearance, was third in the FCS in rushing yards per carry, averaging 7.5 yards a rush. Johnson ran for 1,080 yards in 2018, making him one of the top rushing quarterbacks in the FCS. Johnson also accounted for 26 total touchdowns last season while throwing for 2,207 yards. His performance last season earned him 2018 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year honors and helped make him the 2019 preseason SWAC Offensive Player of the Year.

Franklin “Mac” McCain III

Redshirt junior defensive back — North Carolina A&T

N.C. A&T State University

Franklin “Mac” McCain was selected as an All-MEAC first-team performer in both 2017 and 2018. The Greensboro, North Carolina, native has eight interceptions, 16 pass breakups and 24 pass deflections over his career. McCain has played a vital role in helping lead North Carolina A&T to back-to-back Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl titles. The explosive cornerback has four career interception returns for touchdowns and 374 interception return yards. The redshirt junior will be eligible for the 2020 NFL draft and will look to have a stellar comeback campaign after tearing his ACL last season.

Solomon Muhammad

Senior linebacker — Alcorn State

Alcorn State University

Solomon Muhammad was an HBCU All-American and a first-team All-SWAC honoree in 2018. The hard-hitting linebacker played an integral part in making Alcorn State the third-ranked rushing defense in the FCS last season. Muhammad was the second-leading tackler on a defense that ranked eighth among all FCS schools in total defense. He was also named the 2019 SWAC preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

Caylin Newton

Junior quarterback — Howard

Howard quarterback Caylin Newton runs in for a touchdown during the fourth quarter. Howard still fell 38-31 to Kent State on Sept. 9, 2017.

Dustin Franz for The Undefeated

Caylin Newton led all FCS quarterbacks in passing yards per completion in 2018 (16.85) and helped make Howard one of the only HBCUs to be ranked in the top 15 in FCS total offense. The Atlanta native threw for 2,629 yards and accounted for 26 total touchdowns last season while also ranking among the top 10 in the MEAC in rushing yards per game (57.5). Newton was the 2018 MEAC Offensive Player of the Year and was named to the 2019 Walter Payton Award watchlist as well as the 2019 Black College Football Player of the Year award watchlist.

Austin Stephens

Senior linebacker — Miles College

Miles College

Standout linebacker Austin Stephens was named the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 after recording 120 total tackles on the season. Stephens was the only HBCU defensive player to be ranked in the top 10 of Division II in total tackles. Stephens averaged 10.9 tackles per game in 2018 and had 14.5 tackles for loss. Stephens was named the 2019 SIAC preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

Tabyus Taylor

Junior running back — Virginia Union

Virginia Union University

Tabyus Taylor rushed for 1,546 yards in 2018 while leading Virginia Union to the best winning percentage in the CIAA (800). He averaged 154.5 rushing yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry while scoring 21 touchdowns. He also led all of Division II in all-purpose yardage (196.2). Taylor returns as a CIAA first-team selection and has been picked to win the CIAA Offensive Player of the Year award in 2019.

De’Shawn Waller

Senior running back — Alcorn State

Alcorn State University

De’Shawn Waller was a major force for an Alcorn State team that ranked eighth in FCS rushing offense last season. The first-team preseason All-SWAC selection rushed for 1,215 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2018. Waller averaged an impressive 6.5 yards per carry, and his 121.5 rushing yards per game ranked eighth among all players in the FCS. Waller also ranked in the top 25 of FCS players in scoring and touchdowns.

Alcorn State has three of the top players in HBCU football this season Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman says their talent can’t be overlooked

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