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Stan Becton | | January 29, 2022

The greatest individual seasons in HBCU football history

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Football at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, better known as HBCUs, has a storied history filled with great players. Here's a look at the greatest individual seasons by HBCU players at the I-AA/FCS level.

There were a few prerequisites for a player to make this list. Only seasons from 1978 and on were used since that is the first year of I-AA/FCS play. Unfortunately, that excludes all-time greats like Walter Payton, Doug Williams, Deacon Jones, Ed "Too Tall" Jones and many more.

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That being said, let's get right to the list of the greatest individual seasons in HBCU football history.

The greatest individual seasons in HBCU football history 

1978: Isaiah "Ike" Williams, Florida A&M

We'll start with 1978, the first season of the I-AA. The year takes us to Tallahassee, Florida, where Florida A&M Rattler Williams ran for a school-record 1,274 rushing yards. Not only did Williams break records, but he also led FAMU to win the first-ever I-AA national championship.

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1980: Everson Walls, Grambling State

Two years later, Grambling State was home to a fantastic individual season. In 1980, Everson Walls had a magnificent senior season, intercepting 11 passes. The 11 picks were a I-AA record.

1984: Jerry Rice and Willie Totten, Mississippi Valley State

1984 is the year of the next greatest HBCU season, this time coming from arguably the greatest one-two punch in HBCU history. 

Mississippi Valley State's 1984 team featured quarterback Willie Totten and wide receiver Jerry Rice. Yes, NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. The duo broke numerous I-AA records, with the Delta Devil offense averaging a startling 59 points per game. Together, the two led Mississippi Valley State to a 9-2 record.

Here are the season stat lines for the two standouts. Jerry Rice finished with 103 catches, 1,682 receiving yards, and 27 touchdowns. Rice would finish 9th in Heisman voting in 1984. Willie Totten finished 1984 with 324 completions, 4,572 passing yards and 56 passing touchdowns.

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1990: Aeneas Williams, Southern

In 1990, Southern's Aeneas Williams tied the I-AA interceptions record, picking off 11 passes. 

1991: Ricky Jones, Alabama State

In 1991, Alabama State's Ricky Jones accounted for 2,453 yards of total offense, leading Alabama State to an 11-0-1 record and the Black college national championship.

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1992: Michael Strahan, Texas Southern

NFL great Michael Strahan got his start at an HBCU, playing his college career at Texas Southern. He was dominant his whole career, but in 1992 Strahan was named defensive player of the year at the I-AA level by multiple outlets. Strahan was a terror for opposing quarterbacks all year long, bringing his career sack total to 41.5 sacks. That's a Texas Southern record.

1993: Jay Walker, Howard

Howard Athletics Jay Walker Howard Jay Walker at Howard

You might notice the next name on the list, Jay Walker, from his work in the broadcast booth calling HBCU football games, but he got his start on the field at Howard.

 In 1993, Howard quarterback Jay Walker led the Bison to what some argue is the best season in Howard history. He passed for 3,324 yards and 24 touchdowns, completing 223 passes. Nicknamed "Sky Walker," he led Howard to a MEAC championship, a Black national championship, a top-10 ranking and an 11-0 perfect season. 

1994: Steve McNair, Alcorn State

Steve McNair Alcorn State Steve McNair at Alcorn State

Entering the 1994 season, Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair returned to play for the Braves, turning down an opportunity in the NFL as a potential first- or second-round pick. The NFL-ready McNair boosted his case to scouts everywhere with a season for the ages. 

In 1994, McNair had seven 500-yard passing games, averaging 527.2 passing yards in the regular season. He led Alcorn to a share of the SWAC Championship and was named SWAC offensive player of the year. Also important, McNair completed a career sweep of rival Jackson State.

McNair's complete stat line from the 1994 season is as follows: 356 completions, 5,377 yards, 47 passing touchdowns, 904 rushing yards, and nine rushing touchdowns. That's 6,281 total yards. 

McNair broke numerous records in 1994. It was a remarkable season with McNair finishing 3rd in Heisman voting; many argued he should have won.

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2002: Robert Mathis, Alabama A&M

Alabama A&M athletics Robert Mathis Robert Mathis makes a tackle at Alabama A&M

In 2002, Alabama A&M's Robert Mathis was one of two HBCU players to turn out dominant individual seasons. Mathis' 20 sacks and 10 forced fumbles as a senior set I-AA records, earning him SWAC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Mathis might've taken home more hardware if it wasn't for the next person on our list.

2002: Rashean Mathis, Bethune-Cookman

Bethune-Cookman Athletics Rashean Mathis Bethune-Cookman Rashean Mathis at Bethune-Cookman

At Bethune-Cookman, Rashean Mathis set a I-AA/FCS record that still stands with 14 interceptions. Rashean Mathis won the 2002 Buck Buchanan Award as the best defensive player in the FCS.

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2016: Tarik Cohen, North Carolina A&T

North Carolina A&T State University Tarik Cohen North Carolina A&T Tarik Cohen at North Carolina A&T

The most recent season to make this list came from North Carolina A&T's Tarik Cohen in 2016. Cohen was one of the most dynamic players throughout his career in the FCS. In 2016 he accounted for over 1,900 total yards and 19 touchdowns. That same season, Cohen won the Deacon Jones Trophy and finished fifth for the Walter Payton Award. The Aggies would lose in the FCS playoffs in 2016, but Cohen left his mark as the MEAC's all-time leading rusher.

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