In a move expected by those inside and outside of the University of Miami football program, tight end David Njoku has announced he will forgo his final two years of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft.
Njoku, the speedy, physically gifted athlete who just completed his redshirt sophomore season, is UM’s third-leading receiver, with 38 catches for 654 yards (17.2 yards-per-catch) and seven touchdowns before the bowl game. He had five catches for 44 yards and a touchdown in Wednesday’s win over No. 14 West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl at Camping World Stadium.
“After discussing it with my coach and teammates, I chose to enter the 2017 draft. It’s kind of bittersweet leaving my team a couple years early, but I feel like it’s best for me. It hurts, but this decision that I had to make, was mostly about myself and my family. It’s going to be upsetting that I’m leaving my team a little early, but I think they understand.’’
Njoku said his NFL projection was “top two rounds, early second.’’
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He said his biggest reason for leaving was, “I guess, just where I was at. I don’t know. I guess a gut feeling.
“Obviously, I was thinking about it a lot,’’ he said. “It’s like a dream to go to the NFL. I guess it just clicked. I said, ‘You know what? I think I’m ready.’ I talked to my coach about it.’’
Known for his breakaway motor and acrobatic plays, Njoku was the national high-jumping champion as a senior at Cedar Grove High in New Jersey.
Njoku’s younger brother Evidence – a 6-4, 195-pound receiver – has verbally committed to UM’s Class of 2017.
“He’s a freak,’’ senior tight end/defensive end Standish Dobard said earlier this season of the 6-4, 245-pound Njoku. “He does a lot of things well, and now he’s becoming one off the great blockers, too, not just a pass-catcher. He’s a complete tight end now, so he’s going to be a star.’’
Njoku ends his UM career after playing only two seasons. In 2014, his true freshman year, he redshirted. In 2015, he played in all 13 games with four starts, catching 21 passes for 362 yards and a touchdown.
His Miami numbers before the bowl game: 49 catches for 1,016 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 17.2 yards a catch.
“He has it all,’’ senior safety Rayshawn Jenkins said this week of Njoku. “The size, the speed, the ball skills. I feel like the league is turning more to those tight ends because they can really run and get open in space.’’
With Njoku gone next season, the Hurricanes will still have 6-4, 253-pound tight end Chris Herndon, who caught 25 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season and will be a senior next season.
Also vying for substantial snaps at tight end will be Michael Irvin II and Jovani Haskins, both true freshmen who were suspended for the Russell Athletic Bowl. Haskins did not play this past season.
UM weakside starting linebacker Michael Pinckney was ejected from the game for targeting receiver Shelton Gibson with just under 11 minutes left in the third quarter.
Pinckney, a true freshman, was one of UM’s strongest defensive players and came into the game with 57 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception and two quarterback hurries.
The ejection means he will have to miss the first half of the opening game next season.
On offense: quarterback Brad Kaaya, running back Mark Walton, tight end Chris Herndon, tight end David Njoku, receiver Malcolm Lewis, receiver Ahmmon Richards,and left to right on the offensive line: tackle Kc McDermott, guard Tyler Gauthier, center Alex Gall, guard Danny Isidora and tackle Tyree St. Louis.
On defense: ends Chad Thomas and Joe Jackson, tackles Kendrick Norton and R.J. McIntosh, linebackers Pinckney and Shaquille Quarterman, safeties Jaquan Johnson, Jamal Carter and Rayshawn Jenkins, cornerbacks Corn Elder and Malek Young.
The following 13 Hurricane seniors were listed on the roster for their final career game: receivers Stacy Coley and Malcolm Lewis; tight end/defensive end Standish Dobard; safeties Jamal Carter Sr. and Rayshawn Jenkins; punter Justin Vogel; cornerbacks Corn Elder and Adrian Colbert; fullbacks Marquez Williams, Kevin Carroll and Gage Batten; long snapper Frank Gabriel; and offensive linemen Danny Isidora and Alex Gall.
FROM UM TO WVU
There was one player at the Russell who knows what it feels like to wear both schools’ jerseys.
Cornerback Antonio Crawford transferred from Miami to West Virginia in 2015, sat out that season per NCAA rules, then was eligible to play this season.
Though he didn’t leave the Hurricanes gently, tweeting in February 2015, “I’m a piece of gold that gets treated like a piece of silver, therefore I’m out!!,’’ Crawford, from Tampa, was welcomed by former teammates earlier this week at a charity event, about an hour before tensions rose between other players who exchanged verbal insults.
“As soon as we found out about the game, I was texting them and talking to them on the phone,” said Crawford, who made two starts in his 38 games over three seasons at UM and ended his career with 58 tackles, a sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery and interception. “All good things. It’s a brotherhood still.”
Now healed from a shoulder injury, he played in seven games and started four this season, finishing with 21 tackles and four pass breakups.
“Last time I was on the losing team,” said Crawford of the 2013 Russell, at which UM lost to Louisville. “I want to be on the winning team.”
Courtel Jenkins, who had a sack early in the game, went down with what seemed like a left-leg injury in the first half. But he returned and had a dominant game as late as the third quarter.
UM, in partnership with Miami native Marcus Lemonis — the star of the CNBC show “The Profit’’ — announced the “Match Marcus” fundraising campaign “for student-athlete excellence” on Wednesday before the bowl game. Lemonis said he will match half of every donation up to $1 million, and that his “goal is to raise $3 million “for UM Athletics to invest in every area of the student-athlete experience.”
Lemonis presented UM athletic director Blake James a check for $250,000 to initiate the giving at a Hurricane Club pregame celebration for the Russell Athletic Bowl. Lemonis is chairman and CEO of Camping World.
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TOPPING CENTURY MARK
▪ The Hurricanes finished the first half with five tackles for loss and in the process surpassed 100 tackles for loss for the year. Miami finished the game with nine tackles for loss and closed out the year with 108 tackles for loss.
▪ Miami’s 108 tackles for loss are tied for sixth-most since 1990.
West Virginia has several South Floridians on their roster. They include offensive lineman Yodny Cajuste, and receivers Jovon Durante and Devonte Mathis out of Miramar High; cornerback Mike Daniels out of South Dade High; safety Kevin Williams out of Pompano Beach Ely; and linebacker Sean Walters out of Hallandale.