As 2021 comes to a close, we put the final bow on the HBCU football season by looking at players who should be on everyone’s radar next fall.
While performances are not limited to freshmen, it should be noted that it was a tremendous year for the young guys, with many leading their respective conferences in major statistical categories.
Were their breakout seasons a fluke or are these young guys the real deal?
Here are 10 players fans should watch out for in 2022.
Joseph Murray/Jonathan Ross, Bowie State
An argument could be made that Bowie State had the best defense in all of HBCU football this season.
A big reason for their success was the emergence of Joseph Murray and Jonathan Ross on its defensive line.
Murray had an excellent freshman season recording 10.5 tackles for loss, 9.0 sacks and two forced fumbles on his way to being named to the All-CIAA Rookie Team.
Meanwhile, Ross’ sophomore year concluded with 28.0 tackles for loss (led the CIAA), 10.0 sacks and six forced fumbles, which also was tops in the conference.
He was snubbed for the CIAA Defensive Player of the Year award but was selected to the All-CIAA Defensive first team.
These two will be essential players to what is already a loaded defense.
Kendrell Flowers, South Carolina State
In the first of four entries for running backs on this list, Kendrell Flowers kicked off his college career with a very good freshman season.
He was named to the All-MEAC Second Team after posting 73.7 rushing yards per game scoring 10 rushing touchdowns, which tied for the most in the conference.
In three of his final four games in the regular season, Flowers rushed for over 100 yards and scored a touchdown, including a game against Norfolk State in which he had a season-high 172 rushing yards.
With South Carolina State set to lose receivers Will Vereen and Shaquan Davis, Flowers’ role will almost surely increased making him an intriguing player to watch.
Malachi Wideman, Jackson State
When speaking about Jackson State, Deion Sanders, its menacing defense, and Shedeur Sanders immediately come to mind.
Not enough, however, is said about Sanders’ top receiver Malachi Wideman, who quietly had an impressive freshman season.
He was the team’s second leading receiver, with 540 receiving yards while tallying a SWAC high 12 touchdowns.
Shedeur Sanders and Wideman continuing to build chemistry together on offense along with fellow freshman receiver Trevonte Rucker is a scary concept for a team that already has an elite defense.
Sidney Gibbs, Shaw
In what was a disappointing season for the Shaw Bears, one of the bright spots was freshman running back Sidney Gibbs.
Gibbs led the CIAA with 94.8 rushing yards per game and scored six touchdowns. He rushed for at least 60 yards and averaged four yards per carry or more in all but one game this season.
While posting a season-high 152 rushing yards against Winston-Salem State, his performance against Central State was his most impressive, posting 150 rushing yards averaging 10.7 yards per rush.
In addition, Gibbs is the only running back that rushed for more yards than his quarterback passed with freshman Christian Peters only averaging 91.7 passing yards per game.
While Virginia Union freshman running back Jada Byers could have made this list leading the CIAA with 12 rushing touchdowns, Gibbs gets slightly more points for doing what he did without much help from his passing game.
Brandon Savage, Norfolk State
The Spartans are loaded on defense with playmakers in their secondary that will be returning next season.
The best of the bunch is arguably junior Brandon Savage who had 10 passes defended and three interceptions. He either had a pass breakup for interception in seven of 11 games in 2021.
Kevin Johnson/Elijah Burris, Hampton
After announcing he would be entering the transfer portal at the 2021 football season’s conclusion, Norfolk State Spartans running back Kevin Johnson announced he would be transferring to his former team’s rival Hampton.
In limited action, Johnson put together a solid season with 228 rushing yards averaging 4.7 yards per carry scoring three touchdowns.
He was also the team’s leading kick returner compiling 230 yards on 12 returns during the season.
The move to Hampton means that he will be part of a dynamic sophomore running back duo next season that also includes Burris.
Burris’ freshman campaign saw him be named Big South Freshman of the Year after recording 58.2 rushing yards per game scoring six touchdowns.
In addition to Burris, the Pirates have two additional backs (Keyondre White and Darran Butts) that combined for six touchdowns during the season.
Adding Johnson to the Pirates strong backfield is a recipe for disaster for opposing defenses.
Caleb Johnson, Mississippi Valley State
The Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils were a pleasant surprise this year finishing with a 4-6 record in a season many expected them to be the worst team in the SWAC.
Sophomore running back Caleb Johnson was huge for the Delta Devils leading the conference with 1,018 rushing yards and scoring eight touchdowns on the ground.
Johnson became the first Delta Devil to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since 2000 and was named to the All-SWAC second team as well as the Hero Sports FCS Sophomore All-American team.
Jared Lewis, Delaware State
The Delaware State Hornets offense could be completely different going into next year with wide receiver Trey Gross entering the NFL Draft and running back Sy’Veon Wilkerson entering the transfer portal.
One player that does not get much attention is quarterback Jared Lewis who did not begin the season as the team’s starter.
He threw 20 touchdown passes (second most in the MEAC) to just four interceptions with a pass efficiency rating of 136.0 — the second-best in the conference.
The aspect that will be interesting to see next year is how he adjust to the loss of Gross and others.
Daniel Norman/Armani Maddox, Morehouse
A big reason for Morehouse’s late season success was due to an improving defense led by Daniel Norman and Armani Maddox.
Over the last five game, the Maroon Tigers allowed 245.4 yards and just 12.6 points.
One of the players that led the charge for Morehouse in their dominant second half was Norman.
In just the last five games of the season, the defensive back recorded 14.5 of his total 16.5 tackles for loss, all 9.0 of his sacks, and all four of his forced fumbles.
Along with Norman in the secondary, Morehouse also had Maddox who had a SIAC-leading 14 passes defended and five interceptions.
The fact that fellow freshman defensive back Darien Pittman, who had four picks this season isn’t included, just shows how loaded Morehouse’s secondary is.
J’Rell Joseph, Bluefield State
It’s only right that we end with Bluefield State as they were without a doubt the best feel good story from this season.
Returning to the gridiron for the first time in 41 years, the Big Blue went on to have a tremendous season that no one could have possibly seen coming.
A catalyst for Bluefield State’s success was their quarterback J’Rell Joseph. In seven games, he threw 11 touchdowns without an interception while putting up a spectacular 132.3 pass efficiency rating.
In four of his six games, Joseph threw at least two touchdowns and posted a 232-yard four touchdown performance against Elizabeth City State.
This Bluefield State roster is filled with young talent that has a lot of room to grow. Although they are currently an independent, the Big Blue has the potential to be considered among the best HBCU Division II football teams.