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HBCU GameTime: The Top 5 players to watch – Vol. 3

Daront’e McNeill, Elizabeth City State, RB (Senior, 6-2, 215, Elizabeth, NC)

HBCU GameTime w/ Donal Ware

HBCU sports season is officially on, and as host of the national sports talk radio show, From the Press Box to Press Row, I cover all the action on the games that showcase our Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCU GameTime will provide a weekly rundown on what’s happening on the field, and occasionally other sports-related topics. Let’s play!

It’s time for some HBCU football!

It’s also that time when I put together my annual list of the top five HBCU players to watch this season. As is the case each year, there is a wealth of talent in HBCU football, yet it has not been reflected in the NFL Draft the last couple of years.

Last year, I had Bethune-Cookman defensive end Ryan Davis as an honorable mention on this list, yet there was no question he was a top five player by the time the season was over. There was no question in my mind that he would be drafted.

He was not.

The only player drafted was South Carolina State safety Christian Thompson—in the fourth round (130th) overall by the Baltimore Ravens. With the season and numbers that Davis put up and his pre-draft workouts at both Bethune-Cookman and the University of Miami, there is no way he should not have been drafted, along with others.

I digress. Let’s get to this list.

Honorable Mention: Mike Mayhew, North Carolina A&T, RB (Senior, 5-9, 200, Charlotte, NC)

Last season, Mayhew rushed for 1,120 yards and nine touchdowns. He has the speed to break a big run once he gets to the outside and runs well between the tackles. A Boxtorow All-American last year and MEAC Co-Offensive Player of the Year, he needs just 139 yards to pass Maurice Hicks and become the school’s all-time leading rusher. Defenses must also prepare for the Aggies aerial attack which means — if he stays healthy — Mayhew could rush for 1,500 yards this season.

5. Kameron Smith, Winston-Salem State, QB (Senior, 6-1, 186, Garner, NC)

As for quarterbacks, this is one of the better years overall at the position for HBCUs. Maybe not the same, as say, 2005, when current Seattle Seahawks quarterback Tarvaris Jackson was at Alabama State and Bruce Eugene, who threw for close to 4,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, was at Grambling. Smith, the preseason Boxtorow All-American at quarterback, is a legitimate pocket passer who has the ability to run. He led all HBCU quarterbacks in passing touchdowns (33) last year, while throwing for 2,706 yards. He has the ability to get the ball to different receivers and not lock in on one receiver. In just two seasons he has thrown for 4,228 yards, 52 touchdowns, while completing 60 percent of his passes. He may be relied upon even more with the loss of running back Nic Cooper, who is in camp with the Green Bay Packers.

4. Daronte McNeill, Elizabeth City State, RB (Senior, 6-2, 215, Elizabeth, NC)

In two seasons at ECSU, McNeill is the school’s all-time leading rusher. He has put together back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons including 1,674 yards rushing last year, which was second among all HBCU running backs. His 354 carries last year is a CIAA record for most carries in a season. To boot, he scored 22 rushing touchdowns and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. In the two seasons at Elizabeth City State, McNeill has rushed for 2,995 yards on 592 carries and 32 touchdowns. With a new quarterback coming in, look for McNeill to carry the ball close to 400 times this season.

Kejuan Riley, Alabama State, FS (Senior, 6-2, 208, Wetumpka, AL)

T-3. Kejuan Riley, Alabama State, FS (Senior, 6-2, 208, Wetumpka, AL)

Riley is one of the most feared safeties in college football. After intercepting seven passes as a sophomore, he followed that up by intercepting nine passes last year, which led all HBCU players. He also registered 75 tackles (46 solo) and four pass break-ups. His 17 career interceptions are the most among active Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) players. His speed allows him to get from sideline to sideline and makes him a ball hawk. Riley is the leader one of the best secondaries in the country. He is also on the preseason Buck Buchanan Watch List for best defensive player in FCS.

T-3. Joseph LeBeau, Jackson State, DE (Senior, 6-1, 245, New Orleans, LA)

Rick Comegy is the master of getting junior college transfers and turning them into stars, i.e. quarterbacks Casey Therriault, Jimmy Oliver, and now LeBeau. The Boxtorow All-American and SWAC preseason Defensive Player of the Year was second in the FCS last season in sacks (16.5), fourth in tackles for loss (24.5) and registered 75 tackles (44 solo) as a defensive lineman. He is a dominant end with superior pass rushing ability. Teams will key on LeBeau more with the loss of end Donovan Robinson and his 16 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss.

2. David Carter, Morehouse, RB (Senior, 5-10, 225, Marietta, GA)

2011 was a great year for running backs in HBCU football and Carter was lost a bit in the shuffle. Six running backs rushed for over 1,000 yards and while Carter led all backs in rushing yards per game (149.5), he was overlooked for All-American honors, despite rushing for 1,495 yards, 6.4 yards per carry and 19 touchdowns. This year, he is a preseason Boxtorow All-American and by the numbers has been the most prolific running back in HBCU football over the last three years, rushing for 3,669 yards. Speaking of rushing for more yards than anyone, Carter set a new NCAA Division II record last year when he rushed for 251 yards – in the first half – on his way to 351 yards in a victory over Fort Valley State. Carter has always had good offensive lines to run behind including his freshman year when current Baltimore Raven and former Maroon Tiger Ramon Harewood led the unit and this year will be no different as four of five starters return from last year.

Keith Pough, Howard, RB (Redshirt-Senior, 6-3, 225, Orangeburg, S.C.)

1. Keith Pough, Howard, RB (Redshirt-Senior, 6-3, 225, Orangeburg, S.C.)

One of the best stories in HBCU football last year was Howard football. While the Bison finished with a 5-6 record under first year head coach and all-time leading receive Gary “The Flea” Harrell, they totaled just four wins over the previous three seasons. A lot of last year’s success as due to Pough, the best and most consistent defensive player over the last three years. After redshirting as a freshman in 2008, he opened some eyes in 2009 by racking up 57 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss. He had a breakout sophomore year registering 100 tackles — 28.5 for loss with 10.5 sacks. Last year, he tied for the lead in the MEAC in tackles (120) while registering 21 tackles for loss and three sacks. In three years, Pough has racked up 277 tackles, 62 tackles for loss, and 14.5 sacks. He has an outside shot at breaking former Howard star and current New England Patriots linebacker Tracy White’s record for tackles in a season but — more realistically — is only five tackles for loss away from breaking former Western Kentucky player Sherrod Coates’ FCS record for most tackles for loss in a career (67).

Pough is a tenacious player who wants to dominate, studies A LOT of film and plays within defensive coordinator Rayford Petty’s scheme. The Bison may have to turn him loose and he could have his best and most productive season as they lose defensive linemen Sackie Kerkulah and Corey Berry and their combined 92 tackles, 34.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks last season. Pough was fourth on this list last season.//