2023 Football

FAMU standouts go from zero stars to NFL hopefuls

Isaiah Land and Xavier Smith have silenced all the doubt en route to a possible NFL career.

Today, FAMU football standouts Isaiah Land and Xavier Smith are well-known in collegiate and professional football circles. That was not always the case. Neither of the players left high school with any star ratings. That’s right, the rankings didn’t see them coming. Between the two players, they had one combined Division I scholarship offer.

Land received his only offer from Florida A&M and in the end, that commitment is what kept him in the orange and green. Smith was even further under the radar and had no offers.

Head coach Willie Simmons is ecstatic to see both of these gentlemen trust their careers to his staff. The growth and visibility they have garnered at FAMU have moved them from virtual unknowns to the point where NFL scouts who were at FAMU pro day talked to them like they were household names.

It even drew an NFL general manager. Martin Mayhew, one of nine black general managers made no qualms about why he personally visited Tallahassee. “You guys have talent. You guys have talent here. Isaiah Land is a legitimate prospect. I saw him at the Senior Bowl and he had a great week from start to finish…he belonged. I came to see him specifically, but I saw a lot of good prospects,” Mayhew said.

How the tide has turned for these two humble stars. If you are in the room with Land and Smith, you might never know they were on the cusp of making it to the NFL. Isaiah Land is a witty guy who enjoys the moment. He is soaking up the process and taking time to enjoy realizing a dream that didn’t always appear to be a reality. Smith might not make a sound. He is quiet. Very quiet, but calculated. Smith holds to his spirit, keeping the Holy Bible close to him, acknowledging his unconventional journey as a gift from God.

Florida A&M Head coach Willie Simmons gets emotional when he thinks about his departing stars. “At this stage in the game for those guys (scouts) it’s really about what’s behind the scenes. A lot is put into how fast they run, how high they jump,” Simmons said.

These scouts and NFL personnel really want to know who these guys are. So, to have a general manager here in person to stand there and have a conversation with Isaiah Land and ask him questions about his training regimen. To ask Xavier Smith about his humble beginnings of working at Amazon. So you get the back story and that goes a long way to determine whether he wants to invest hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in a guy, I think the more you know the better opportunity you have to make a true evaluation.”

Land’s career had one point in his mind, to prove to everyone that he belonged. “Coming out of high school, I had only one offer and that was FAMU,” Land said. That offer would pay dividends in a trying time in Land’s career. After the 2021 season, Land was awarded the Buck Buchanan Award for being the best FCS defensive player in the country.

In the spring of 2022, his world would change. His close friend, FAMU All-American safety Markquese Bell, would go undrafted in the 2022 NFL Draft. That shook Land to his core. He had doubts about achieving the next level from an HBCU. He responded by entering the transfer portal on the last day of eligibility in order to keep his options open.

In the end, he felt the transfer portal was a feeding frenzy that he really had no desire to be a part of. “Schools were coming at me from all over saying how great I was,” Land said. “After a while, I was like I couldn’t play with nobody but my brothers who I started with. FAMU believed in me from the start and that’s where I belonged,” he concluded.

Xavier Smith took an even more complicated journey. He had no offers. He decided to go work for Amazon and give up on his dream. Fortunately, his older brother Kareem had just finished playing for FAMU and it was still a dream for Xavier to wear orange and green, so family and friends encouraged him to try out, and he did.

Simmons immediately saw a gem in disguise. By his sophomore season, Xavier Smith was All-MEAC. In 2019, his signature catch was a come-from-behind game-winner in Bragg Stadium against the Southern Jaguars. In a game that drew over 27,000 fans (larger than a homecoming crowd), Smith pulled a double move that left the Jaguar defender defenseless as he slid into the endzone and grabbed a strike from quarterback Ryan Stanley.

After both of their journeys, they are household names in HBCU football and possibly on the cusp of making it to the highest level. They have both embraced the journey and made the most of their opportunities. We shall see shortly what may be the next step in their treks. Fortunately, both have degrees in hand.

FAMU standouts go from zero stars to NFL hopefuls
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