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HBCU players have been an integral part of the NFL's history. From Jerry Rice to Larry Little and Walter Payton, the league has been shaped by talented athletes from historically black colleges and universities.
For the Washington Commanders, this fact should be familiar to them. Doug Williams, a Grambling alum, guided Washington to its second Super Bowl victory with an impressive performance, taking down the Denver Broncos with 340 yards and four touchdowns.
In anticipation for the 2022 NFL Draft and in honor of Black History Month, Commanders.com will be highlighting some of this year's HBCU prospects. Here are the players we've looked at so far.
Next up is Norfolk State's Jalen Powell.
Jalen Powell, OG, Norfolk State
Being violent at the point of attack is not something that can be taught. That's the way offensive line coach Brandon Torrey sees it.
To him, it's simple: you're either the hammer, or you're the nail. It didn't take long to figure out which Norfolk State's Jalen Powell was.
"He was the hammer," Torrey said, "turning a lot of people into nails."
It's one of the reasons why Torrey, who now coaches at Howard University, is so confident in his former player as he tries to take the next step in his career. From the time Powell was a high school prospect, Torrey could see that sooner or later, Powell would be playing the game at a high level.
And with a little fine tuning, Torrey helped pair that physicality with pristine technique.
Torrey's first experiences with Powell came when he was recruiting the guard out of Hampton (Va.) High School. Even then, Powell's violence up front stuck out to Torrey. He knew how to put his facemask and hands in defenders' chests, drive his feet and finish with pancake blocks. It's part of what earned him all-state honors in his junior and senior seasons.
Powell did not sign with the Bison, though, choosing to join Norfolk State instead. Two years later, Torrey was hired as the Spartans' offensive line coach, and Powell was the player Torrey thought he would be.
"We still have each other's respect," Torrey said. "I wanted to work with him and improve him. He wanted to work with me and learn what I had to give."
Powell had already gone through his growing pains by the time Torrey came to Norfolk State. He had been through the trial by fire, Torrey said, but there were some things to fine tune about his skillset. It started with his stance; Torrey knew Powell could move well and was a naturally gifted puller, but the tweaks helped him take advantage of those traits.
"Your first step is taking that first inch," Torrey said. "You'll win within your first two steps, so it was crucial to change up his footwork and change his stance up a little bit."
The Spartans also added counter and power plays once Torrey arrived at Norfolk State to help highlight Powell's ability. It played a part in how well the offense performed in 2019. The Spartans finished with the top scoring offense in the program's time as a Division I program with the third-best rushing offense in the MEAC.
Powell was solid in pass protection, but Torrey changed that part of his game as well. It centered around letting him use his aggression more. Some teams like their guards to take 45 degree angles or take a step or two back in protection. That's not how Torrey does things; he wants his linemen to stand strong at the line of scrimmage.
Did it work? Well, Powell only allowed two sacks that season.
"He loved it," Torrey said.
Powell was third-team All-MEAC that season, but that was only the start of the accolades he would receive during his time with the Spartans. He was a first-team All-MEAC selection in 2022, as the Spartans finished with an offense that put up 33.2 points per game. They averaged 212 rushing yards per game, while their quarterbacks were only sacked a total of 17 times.
What's more, Powell always held his own against larger programs like Montana State in 2019 and Wake Forest in 2021.
"Those are the games that you want to improve on and play at your best and your peak," Torrey said. "And he always played at his highest level."
Powell was invited to the HBCU Combine and the HBCU Legacy Bowl, and while Torrey has since gone back to Howard, he kept a close eye on his former player in the all-star game.
"You could see his punch," Torrey said. "You could see him getting his hand in that inside armpit and being physical."
As someone who played at the professional level, Torrey can tell when a player has the tools to take the next step. He had a six-year career with the Giants, Steelers, Raiders and Cardinals, and he was a member of the Giants team that upset the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
And from what Torrey has seen, Powell is ready.
"They're getting a guy that's going to play with high energy," Torrey said on what NFL teams would be getting out of Powell. "He's gonna do the little things, the things that make a difference."