by Donal Ware
Tennessee State has the best recruiting class amongst Division I HBCUs.
For the second year in a row and third time in five years it was clear after extensive research of the 22 schools that the Tigers class was No. 1. As a matter of fact, TSU is perennially in the top five. I can’t remember a year in the 11 years BOXTOROW has been ranking classes that the Tigers haven’t been. And they have been pretty consistent on the field.
As I look at the classes, recruiting is up as a whole. There are some teams not on this list that in years past would have been. And let’s be honest, stars by a player’s name means something. But it does not mean everything. Schools aren’t getting as many of the three-star players as they used too.
It is not an exact science and usually recruits don’t bear fruit until their third-year in the program, after most time experiencing a redshirt season. There are some notable exceptions to not having a star by ones name that have happened more recently.
Back in 2013, South Carolina State was No. 3 in our rankings and there was no mention of a guy by the name of Javon Hargrave. He had no stars by his name. All he did was to have a good rookie year, a better sophomore year and then two dynamic junior and senior seasons on his way to being named two-time Willie Davis BOXTOROW Player of the Year and being a third round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steels and had a pretty solid rookie season.
The other player was from last year, North Carolina A&T wide receiver Elijah Bell. He didn’t have any stars by his name at least from Rivals or Scout, yet he was MEAC Rookie of the Year, second team All-MEAC and will be probably the top returning wide receiver in the MEAC in 2017.
One of the trends that are taking place is the signing of FBS quarterbacks to HBCU programs. While Grambling more recently has been the most successful at it, last year signing former Ole Miss quarterback DeVante Kincade, others have had success including Hampton who may have started the trend at least from a success standpoint, signing David Watford from Virginia in 2015. Tennessee State signed a major guy as you’ll read about momentarily and Morgan State signed former Mississippi State quarterback Elijah Staley, a 6-7, 240-pounder who has two more years and should not only excel in head coach Fred Farrier’s system, but if successful, should help to bolster MSU’s recruiting also.
After some re-evaluation over the weekend, this class is in a different order than what I mentioned this past weekend on FROM THE PRESS BOX TO PRESS ROW. The top three teams remain the same.
As has been the case for 11 years now, FROM THE PRESS BOX TO PRESS ROW has ranked the top 10 HBCU FCS recruiting classes. The rankings are based on research that we did based upon school releases, local newspaper articles, and recruiting boards.
Special thanks go out to the various beat writers at respective newspapers and to the sports information directors.
- Tennessee State
Tennessee State continues to recruit well and has premier facilities amongst FCS programs. They SHARE a professional stadium with the Tennessee Titans. And when they play on campus they play in what’s called “The Hole,” at historic Hale Stadium. It may not mean much to the recruits, but when you can tell the recruits’ parents that legendary coach John Merritt coached there and players like Too Tall Jones, Richard Dent, Claude Humphrey, Joe Gilliam, even head coach Rod Reed himself, played there, it carries weight. Not to mention, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is still playing at a pretty high level with the New York Giants and a few other players have been drafted more recently. Plus the Tigers have a full indoor facility. Reed also takes a hands-on approach, personally visiting many of the recruits that TSU is able to sign. The class addressed immediate needs, but also looked to the future. The Tigers already have one of the best wide receiver combinations in the country in Patrick Smith and Steven Newbold. They signed Ali-Malik Moore from Miami’s Northwestern, who also received offers from NC State and East Carolina. He could have an immediate impact. They also signed a local product in Lawrence Segree, II from Brentwood and Vincent Thomas from Orlando FL’s Jones, who caught 50 passes for 1,029 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Tigers should be pretty good at quarterback next year with the expected return of O’Shay Ackerman-Carter. But Ackerman-Carter would be coming of his second season-ending injury in as many years and will be very limited in spring practice. With that, the Tigers signed former University of Florida quarterback Treon Harris. Harris started 15 games in two years at Florida, completing 174-of-346 passes for 2,695 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and rushed for 570 yards and three touchdowns. If that wasn’t enough Reed and staff also looked to the future by signing local star Joshua Trueheart (Startford Comprehensive) who at 6-5, 220, is the type of big, pocket passing quarterback that Reed likes but can also run having rushed for 754 yards, while throwing for just under 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns during his career. Defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko is regarded as the best defensive end in the OVC. Teams may now have to be weary of double teaming Ogundeko with the signing of JUCO transfer LaRonzo Davis, a former three-star recruit who attended Melrose. He had a very productive couple of years at LA Valley College. With the graduation of BOXTOROW All-America Ezra Robinson, Rivals two-star cornerback Ray Coggins will compete for playing time. Olympia (Orlando, FL) linebacker James Green is another highlight of the class. Green is rated as a 3-Star prospect by 247Sports and ranked 97th in the Sentinel’s Florida Top 100. He received offers from Buffalo, Old Dominion, South Alabama, Western Michigan, and FCS national champion James Madison. Other highlights of the class include linebacker Moris Lugo (Miami Carol City HS), rated two stars by 247 Sports; LSU transfer offensive lineman Chidi Okeke and cornerback Neiman Armstrong, who transfers in from Cisco Community College and could play right away. The class includes four players from the Nashville area and two from Memphis.
- North Carolina Central
The Eagles won the MEAC championship for the third-year in a row, but won it outright last year for the first time since 1973. After having the number one recruiting class in 2015, they did not make the rankings last year, but came back strong this year. This is probably head coach Jerry Mack and staff’s best class. The Eagles added depth in the trenches on both sides of the ball where they were already strong by signing 10 of their 22 players to the offensive and defensive lines. The prize of the class could be Miami Norland defensive back Aaron Duncan a three-star recruit by Scout and 247 who had offers from Southern Miss, NC State and Tulane. He played safety, but could convert to corner and help replace former BOXTOROW All-America Mike Jones who graduated, enrolled at Temple and is eligible to play right away. The Eagles also bolstered their linebacking corps by signing three including Branden Bailey (Deerfield Beach), who was rated as a three-star recruit by Scout.com and ranked as the 10th inside linebacker in Florida and Patrick Conner from Greensboro Dudley who helped lead the Panthers to another state title and along the way recorded 166 tackles, seven tackles for loss, eight sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. With the graduation of quarterback Malcolm Bell, the Eagles signed Chauncey Caldwell from Charlotte’s Mallard Creek. Caldwell is rated a two-star recruit by Scout. He has ties to Durham having played at Hillside as a junior, passing for more than 2,500 yards with 32 touchdowns and rushed for more than 400 yards with seven touchdowns. About more than 50 percent of the Eagles roster are former North Carolina high school players and the Eagles stayed within that number, signing 12 from NC. Other highlights of the class include FBS transfers Randy Anyanwu, a defensive end from Buffalo and defensive tackle Chris Burton from Cincinnati; two-star offensive lineman Jose Jeanty, (Deerfield Beach); former Hillside star Kalen McCain (Lackawanna); 247 Sports two-star offensive lineman Somadina Okezie-Okeke (River Ridge) and JUCO wide receiver Eric Saintil (Shasta College) who registered 35 catches for 798 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2016 and could help in replacing wide receiver Lavontis Smith.
- Jackson State
Head coach Tony Hughes was known as one of the best recruiters in the country while at Mississippi State and brings that reputation to Jackson State with his second class, signing 34 players. One of the highlights of the class is quarterback Jeffrey Toney from Niceville, FL. Toney has a big time arm and is a pro-style quarterback that can throw it deep. He’s 6-6, 223 pounds and completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 2,657 yards with 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 11 games as a senior. Quarterback is definitely a need for the Tigers with the graduation of LaMontiez Ivy and the transfer of Juwan Adams. The Tigers signed a couple of receivers to help its passing game. D.J. Clayton (Kemper County) is an explosive receiver who should have an immediate impact. He caught 93 passes for 1,931 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior. Kendrick Paul from Livonia (LA) is a two-star Rivals signee who had an offer from Arkansas. He’s tough with good speed and good route running ability who could also move to defensive back where he is a big hitter. Speaking of defensive backs, the Tigers signed Scout two-star prospect Kevin Berthey from New Orleans’ McDonough and local product Markel Gladney (Callaway), who could have an immediate impact. The Tigers also added depth at linebacker by signing Brandon Frazier from New Orleans’ John Curtis a 247 Sports two-star player who is an early enrollee and Robert Green, from New Orleans’ John Ehret.
- Norfolk State
Spartan head football coach Latrell Scott and staff put together another solid recruiting class and placed an emphasis on recruiting Virginia and more specifically the Tidewater area. The Spartans placed a major emphasis on the offensive line in recruiting last year, but did not have success running the ball in 2016. The Spartans signed Rivals three-star running back Marvin Beander, Jr. from Maryland’s Quince Orchard. He has homerun ability and rushed 168 times for 1,339 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior. The Spartans also signed a big running back in Shedrick McCall, III who is listed at 6‐2, 235 from Richmond’s L.C. Bird. He was first‐team All‐Metro and All‐5A South Region after rushing 195 times for 2,280 yards and 38 touchdowns as a senior. He is rated a two‐star recruit by Rivals and Scout. With the graduation of quarterback Greg Hankerson, the Spartans signed two quarterbacks in Juwan Carter from Richmond’s Highland Springs. He was named the state 5A Offensive Player of the Year after leading Highland Springs to its second straight state championship. He passed for 2,682 yards and 27 touchdowns and also rushed for 473 yards and 20 scores as a senior and was 39‐3 as a high school starting quarterback. Tripp Harrington, who committed to the Spartans last year, re-committed after spending a year at Fork Union Military Academy where he led the team to an 8-2 record, accounting for 22 touchdowns. While at East Wake in Wendell, NC he rushed for 1,187 yards and 16 touchdowns while passing for 2,507 yards and 24 more scores. Defensively, defensive back Johnathan Gregory (Hampton’s Phoebus) will be a great addition and was named the Defensive Player of the Year in state Group 3A as well as the Daily Press Defensive Player of the Year. As a senior he recorded 11 interceptions, eight pass breakups and over 60 tackles. Defensive back Charell Coley (Highland Springs) was first‐team All‐State 5A and All‐Metro and is a three‐star recruit by Rivals and had offers from Maryland and Cincinnati. Potomac (Woodbridge, Va.) linebacker Marquis Hall was rated a three‐star recruit by 247 Sports and a two‐star prospect by Rivals and Scout.
Note: On February 16, the Spartans announced the signing of punter Taylor Goettie. The Spartans ranked next to last in net punt average (28.7) and third from last in punt average (32.1). Goettie was a multi-sport athlete at Oglethorpe County High School (Lexington, Ga.). As a senior, he was the Region 8AA Punter of the Year. He was rated the No. 19 punter in the nation in the class of 2017 by Chris Sailer Kicking.
This is the first time in the 11 years of rankings that the Bison are ranked. Former Richmond and UVA head coach Mike London was introduced as the head football coach about a month ago and hit the ground running. He was able to sign some new players while getting some players who had already committed to the program to stay. Twenty-three committed in all with eight of those players being from the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia). The Bison will have the best running back in the MEAC in Anthony Philyaw returning, but signed Rivals two-star running back Jammone Williams from Desoto (TX) who stayed with Howard despite the coaching change. Thomas Jefferson (PA) running back Quinton Hill also signed and as a senior had 250 carries for 1,940 yards and 28 touchdowns. Howard struggled at quarterback last year and perhaps the biggest name amongst Howard’s prospects is Grady’s (GA) Caylin Newton. If the name sounds familiar it’s because he is the brother of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. He is listed as a three-star quarterback by Rivals and is a dual threat. The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder was productive, completing 66 percent of his passes for 3,322 yards, 33 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while also carrying the ball 92 times for 1,036 yards and 13 more touchdowns. He made a visit to Tennessee State where older brother Cecil Newton played and received offers from Savannah State and Hampton. The Bison also signed a two-star offensive lineman in Branden Johnson (Good Counsel) and a couple of rated defensive players in Tye Freeland from Dinwiddie (VA), a Rivals and Scout two-star player who received offers from Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple, UVA, Wake Forest and other FBS programs and linebacker Brian Witter from Florida’s Miramar, rated two stars by Scout with an offer from Charlotte. 6. Alcorn State
Even though Alcorn State won the SWAC East, the season wasn’t where Braves coach Fred McNair wanted it to be. So he and his staff went out and added to what should be a solid football team in 2017. The prize signing in the Braves class which consisted of 14 players, eight from Mississippi, is safety Cleveland Ford from Gulfport. He’s a three-star recruit who received offers from FBS schools including Texas Tech. Ford also played quarterback, passing for 1,799 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is an early enrollee and will participate in spring drills. With Marquis Warford returning but coming off injury, the Braves added another Marquis(e), running back Marquise Forman, a two-star Scout product from Cedar Hill in Texas who rushed for 873 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior. To aid in the running game, Alcorn signed two-star offensive tackle Franklin Smith from Liberty-Eylau in Texarkana, TX. The Braves also get some immediate experience by signing JUCO transfer defensive lineman Matt Davis originally from South Panola in Batesville, MS, who played two years at Northwest Mississippi College and defensive back Isiah Thomas from East Central Community College who registered 125 tackles in two seasons.7. Florida A&M
The Rattlers under now third-year head coach Alex Wood signed a total of 24 players, 18 of those players from the high school ranks. FAMU didn’t even have to leave the football-rich state of Florida as all of the high school signees were in-state and 20 players are from Florida. Offensive line was an emphasis and the Rattlers addressed that unit by signing three including Scout three-star prospect Donovan Hovey-Franklin, ranked the 12th best offensive tackle in Florida, Scout two-star prospect Antawn Lewis, who had offers from UNC, Charlotte and South Florida and 247 Sports three-star Steven Jean-Baptiste (Chaminade-Madonna Prep). Jean-Baptiste was top a 10 rated guard in Florida and had multiple FBS offers. They will help to aid a FAMU running game that only averaged 107.7 yards rushing per game and protect talented quarterback Ryan Stanley. Speaking of quarterback the Rattlers signed two; Scout two-star prospect Dekovin Cann Jr. of Dixie M. Hollins in St. Petersburg and hometown prospect D.J. Phillips (Rickards). Cann passed for 2,635 yards, 23 touchdowns, to just six interceptions, while rushing for 605 yards and five touchdowns as a senior. Safety Levon Barnett of Dwyer in Palm Beach is a key addition on defense.8. Bethune-Cookman
The Wildcats are coming off a disappointing season, a lot of which was due to injury. Head coach Terry Sims and staff addressed several needs and added depth. The Wildcats signed a total of 16, including 12 from Florida. Highlights from the class include a couple of Miami offensive linemen in Cecric Jackson (Norland) and Teaki Fuller (Norland). Cornerback Keon Jackson from Jacksonville’s Mandarin is a Scout two-star recruit and can help bolster a Bethune-Cookman’s secondary which ranked third in the MEAC in passing in 2016. Wide receiver Marquis Wimberly should also be a nice addition after playing at Chaffey College, previously prepping at Miami’s Norland. As a sophomore at Chaffey, Wimberly had 59 receptions for 782 yards and 14 touchdowns and had offers from UNLV and Marshal amongst others. Inside linebacker Marquis Hendrix, who originally signed with Boise State after prepping at Trinity Catholic in Ocala, played at Coffeyville Community College and should be able to contribute right away to the Wildcat defense.9.South Carolina State
The Bulldogs have perennially had a top five class. They have always recruited South Carolina well and placed an emphasis in recent years on North Carolina (Hargrave is from Salisbury) as well as Georgia. Because of fiscal affairs, head coach Buddy Pough and staff got all 22 of their players from South Carolina. The Bulldogs really needed to address some issues on offense and did that by signing five running backs including Lake City’s Tyshawn Baines who in his senior year accounted for 1,463 yards and 24 touchdowns and Beaufort’s Omar Cummings who as a senior accounted for 1,270 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Bulldogs also needed a quarterback with the graduation of Adrian Collick, Jr. and Caleb York transferring. They signed Strom Thurmond’s Tyerece Nick, who accounted for over 2,400 of total offense, to compete to back up starting quarterback Mykal Moody. Defensively, the Bulldogs will be solid behind the play of reining BOXTOROW Willie Davis Defensive Player of the Year linebacker Darius Leonard. A lot of times we throw the word great around to describe players, but Leonard is great and is on the verge of becoming the Bulldogs all-time leading tackler. Think about that when players the likes of Harry Carson, Donnie Shell, etc. have played at SCSU. Fellow linebacker Dayshawn Taylor is really good also. Highlight signings on defense include defensive back Jaylen Evans (Hartsville, SC), defensive lineman Shaheem Haltiwanger (White Knoll) and defensive back Corey Riley (A.C. Flora).T-10 Grambling
The defending BOXTOROW national champion Tigers signed 19 players and placed a major emphasis in the trenches, signing five offensive linemen and five defensive linemen. What was most impressive is how big the offensive linemen are as their average weight is 300 pounds. Ole Miss transfer Christian Norris was a big signing. He is a former teammate of Kincade and was getting ready to retire from football due to a neck injury, but the doctors cleared him to play. Also watch for Preston Davis from nearby Neville.
T-10 Savannah State
Savannah State surprised a lot of people by winning three games last year. With Erik Raeburn entering his second season as the head coach, recruits can see that the Tiger program has some potential. What was impressive about the class is that of the 26 signees, 21 are from Georgia, one is from nearby Hilton Head, S.C. and three are from nearby Jacksonville, FL. Another impressive item with respect to the class is the signing of seven offensive linemen. The Tigers only had five on scholarship including 6-foot-7, 325-pound Michael Johnson, a mid-year recruit from Fork Union Military. A couple of names to point out in this class include running backs CJ Cole and Jaylen McCloud. Cole ran for 1,094 yards and seven touchdowns at North Cobb last season. McCloud had 1,497 yards and 19 touchdowns while leading Jacksonville’s Bolles. Lastly, a lot of the names may not wow you but what is also important is that at least four of the players have been part of state championship teams. To build a winning program, you have to infuse players into your program that have a winning attitude.
Note: On February 2, Lowndes (Valdosta, GA) Rivals three-star wide receiver Xavier Jenkins aigned with SSU. He had offers from Georgia, Mississippi State, ECU and Louisville. Jenkins could have an immediate impact in the passing game as the Tigers started two freshman in T.J. Bell and Blake Dever. The Tigers two top receivers Tino Smith, II and Derek Kirkland also return.