When the Patriots made their final selection of the 2023 NFL draft, they spent it on Jackson State University's Isaiah Bolden, making Bolden the only player this year to be drafted this year from an HBCU. Bolden's former head coach and NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders weighed in on social media, saying he was proud of his former player but ashamed that more NFL teams aren't following the Patriots' lead and drafting more players from the growing talent pool at schools like Jackson State.
Last year, Bolden's former Jackson State teammate James Houston was drafted by the Lions and logged an impressive eight sacks as a rookie, showing it's possible for players like him to make the jump and have an impact at the next level. While two draft picks in two years is a growing trend tt's one that should be picking up more momentum.
The current Patriots' connections to Jackson State actually run deeper than many might realize, with both Matthew Slater's father Jackie and Deatrich Wise's father Deatrich Sr. both having attended the college and played football there in the 70s and 80s respectively.
Those connections should help pave the way for Bolden as he enters a deep Patriots secondary room that has added five players over the last two drafts. Jackson State's new head coach T.C. Taylor has a unique perspective on what lies ahead for him, having gone against Bolden in practice when he was on the offensive side of the ball but also having spent time with the Patriots in 2002 as an undrafted rookie who later spent time on the team's practice squad.
"Zay was a tremendous athlete coming in as a transfer from Florida State for us a couple of years ago," Taylor told Patriots.com. "Me being the receiver coach and OC at the time when he came in the door, he has great length and measurables, a six-foot-three kid that can really run a 4.3 40 and he plays that way on the field. But a tremendous young man, he loves the game of football, he came out and worked his butt off, had a could of injuries that set him back, but he pushed through and found a way to impact football games as a cornerback."
After a limited first two seasons at Florida State, Bolden transferred in September of 2020 and spent three years at Jackson State, emerging as a kickoff returner in his second season before seizing a starting cornerback role in his final year. He logged 44 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and seven passes defensed in 11 starts in 2022.
"Coach Prime wanted to throw him back to kickoff return, he had some opportunities to touch the football and he lit it up back there as well as a returner," said Taylor. Bolden led the FCS in kickoff return yards in 2021 (36.9 yard average).
Aside from seeing Bolden's kickoff return potential, his former head coach also provided some critical coaching on the finer points of cornerback play.
"You're talking about probably one of the greatest players to ever play the game, to be able to come to work and play for a coach like that on a day-to-day basis, these kids took it and ran with it," recalled Coach Taylor of Sanders' impact on the secondary. "Zay was the guy that always asked Coach for questions. Coach Prime, him being a DB, he was really hands-on with those corners... He took it to heart when those guys weren't doing it the right way. So he pushed them when they needed to be pushed and got the most out of all those guys over there."
"It was big time," said Bolden of being coached by Sanders. "Learning from the greatest of all time was a blessing. I feel like he developed me for this moment."
With a solid two final seasons, Bolden secured his spot on the Patriots draft board, hearing his name finally called late on Day 3, even as he was preparing to choose a team in rookie free agency.
"Honestly, at the time we were just looking," said Bolden after the draft. "We were getting calls from different teams about free agency. I wasn't losing hope. But then, God-willing the Patriots called."
"Isaiah, a Florida kid, went to Florida State, ended up at Jackson State," said Matt Groh after the team had finalized their 2023 draft class. "So this is a kid who -- a southeast kid growing up down in Florida. Football is in a lot of those guys' veins. Was able to spend some time with Isaiah here in the pre-Draft process, and certainly looking forward to getting to know him better and congratulate him on representing the HBCU. I think that's a great thing."
Upon his arrival in Foxborough, Bolden and the rest of the rookies have a golden opportunity, something that Coach Taylor wanted to drive home for Bolden and any of the other HBCU players that are sure to get a shot in training camps this summer.
"Whether you get drafted or just a free agent shot, it's all about what are you going to do with that opportunity?" said Taylor. "So you may not have gotten drafted, but you got your opportunity. I was a guy that felt like I could have been drafted as well when I played. I finished up in 2001 and I got an opportunity to go as a free agent to the Patriots and I just took it as, that's what God gave me and I made it work for me. But we're gonna continue to work in the HBCUs, we're going to continue to develop good talent. We're catching the eye of the NFL, but it's important for those guys, once they get this opportunity to go out there and take full advantage of those opportunities."
"It means a lot to me," said Bolden of being the only HBCU player drafted. "Just having that chip on my shoulder, carrying the weight of HBCUs. I've got something to prove. There's a lot of talented guys that are out there. I just understand that chip on my shoulder is for all the HBCUs."
After his experience with the Patriots over 20 years ago, Taylor prescribed the mindset Bolden would have to take with him to Foxborough.
"He has to understand the Patriot way, you know, come to work on a day-to-day basis," said Taylor. "That's all I can remember about Coach Belichick, the guys that worked their butts off, knew their assignment, and just bring it every day, don't take a backseat, whether they're telling you to do special teams, playing the nickel, playing at the corner, just come to work every day and be prepared for the moment. And when that opportunity comes knocking, you got to open that door and take it and go with it."
Patriots Draft Pick Profile
Strengths: Unique mover for his height and weight... Led FCS in kick return yardage (36.9 average) in 2021... Rare combination of size, speed and length give him the measurables of an NFL cornerback... Physical run defender... Exhibits exceptional burst... Two career kick off return TDs.
Weaknesses: Started just 13 games total in college... Technique and play recognition require further development... One career interception.
By the numbers
|PLAYER NUMBERS||Combine Position Average|
|Height: 6-2||6-0 1/2|
|40 Yards: 4.33||4.44|
|Bench (225): n/a||14.1|
|Vertical Jump: 38||37.5|
|Long Jump: 10'9"||10'8"|
What they're saying …
Chad Reuter/NFL.com: Bolden projects as a press-man cornerback with plus size, length and top-end speed. He lacks the instincts and technique to maintain his feel for routes in off-man and zone coverages, but he might have a chance to utilize his traits effectively in a physical snap-to-whistle cover scheme. He's light on ball production, but the measurables are impressive. Bolden could get an early ticket to a practice squad to continue his journey.
View photos of Patriots seventh round pick, cornerback Isaiah Bolden in action at Jackson State.
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