When Al Golden recruited David Njoku to the University of Miami in 2014 the Cedar Grove, N.J. native was known more for his world class high jumping skills and freakish athletic gifts than his hands.
Miami's former head coach was so confused as to what to do with Njoku he moved him from receiver over to linebacker a little more than a week into fall practice in August 2014.
“David is kind of a hybrid for us,” Golden said 14 months before he was fired. “He’s 230 pounds. So is he a Big X because he runs well and has explosiveness? Is he an H-back? Or is he a SAM [linebacker]?”
Njoku, who only spent a week at linebacker before he was shifted back to receiver, answered that question rather loudly Thursday night when he became the youngest tight end in NFL history ever taken in the first round of the draft.
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The Cleveland Browns used the 29th pick to draft the 20-year-old redshirt sophomore, who decided to leave Coral Gables after playing in only 26 games in two seasons. Njoku, who caught his first college touchdown pass two weeks after Golden was canned, became the 64th first round pick in UM history, extending the program’s new streak of first rounders to three consecutive seasons.
He also joined Greg Olsen (31st overall, 2007), Kellen Winslow (6th overall, 2004), Jeremy Shockey (14th overall, 2002) and Bubba Franks (14th overall, 2000) as the fifth Hurricanes tight end to be drafted in the first round. Only Notre Dame, which has had six tight ends taken in the first round, has produced more.
Njoku was the third tight end taken on Thursday. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took Alabama’s O.J. Howard with the 19th pick and the New York Giants drafted Mississippi’s Evan Engram with the 23rd pick. It’s the first time since 2002 three tight ends have been drafted in the first round.
Although he’s still considered very raw at the position because he only made nine starts in his college career (64 catches for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns), scouts have long drooled over Njoku’s athleticism and potential (he's 6-4, 246 pounds with 4.64 speed in the 40-yard dash). At a position that’s become much more about those qualities in the last 10 to 15 years, it made Njoku quite coveted.
“He has the size and athleticism (37½-inch vertical and 11-foot-1 broad jump at the combine) to run past and jump over defenders,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper said of Njoku back in February. “He could be an All-Pro.”
Drafting UM tight ends usually ends up being a wise decision. Five former UM tight ends have been named to at least one Pro Bowl – each of the four previous first round picks and former Hurricanes basketball standout Jimmy Graham, who is tied with Shockey for the most Pro Bowl selections by a former UM tight end with four.
Njoku recently told USA Today that for the better part of the past year he’s spent hours watching film of Shockey, Olsen, Graham, Winslow and Clive Walford (a 2015 third round pick from UM with 10 career starts for the Oakland Raiders) and then tape from his own one-on-one battles in practice. He said he put his clips in slow motion and analyzed every aspect of his hand placement, route running, catching and footwork. Then, Njoku said, he would go home and meditate.
“He is still growing into his body and has to add to his play strength,” draft analyst Lance Zierlein wrote of Njoku in his NFL.com draft bio. “But his playmaking potential and elite traits should make him a first-round pick and a future Pro Bowler.”
Njoku grew up in a Nigerian household with nine children. His younger brother, Evidence, signed with UM in February and is a three-star wide receiver. His eldest brother, Innocent, is a neurosurgeon in upstate New York according to Bleacher Report. He has a sister who is a nurse, another who is in medical school and a third who has a mechanical engineering degree.
Before the Hurricanes figured out they needed to move him to tight end and get the ball in his hands, Njoku was a national champion high jumper in high school. Although he dropped eight balls over two seasons at UM according to Zierlein, he also had catches of 76, 54, 48, 46, 33, and 30 yards and averaged 16.2 yards per reception in 2016. That type of explosion excited NFL scouts and brought Njoku plenty of interest.
Before the draft, he worked out privately for the Titans, Buccaneers, Saints, Broncos, Dolphins, Steelers and Panthers.
“I can do it all,” Njoku told USA Today. “I can line up on the line of scrimmage attached, or go outside and make it happen at receiver. It hasn’t really stopped me or made me think twice of making this step and coming out. I’ve only played tight end for about two years. I’m new to the position, but I think I’m improving very fast. I think I can only get better from here on out.”
OTHER UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI DRAFT TARGETS
Corn Elder, CB, Projected 3rd-4th round
Brad Kaaya, QB, Projected 3rd-4th round
Danny Isidora, OG, Projected 5th-6th round
Rayshawn Jenkins, S, Projected 6th-7th round
Justin Vogel, P, Projected 7th round
Stacy Coley, WR, Projected 7th round
Joe Yearby, RB, Projected 7th round