David Njoku, with all that flashiness and freakish athleticism, was a tight end you could hardly take your eyes off in 2016, lest you miss his hurdling of opponents or stunning flips into the end zone.
After his redshirt sophomore season, Njoku became the fifth UM tight end drafted in the first round (by Cleveland) since 2000, joining Greg Olsen (2007), Kellen Winslow (2004), Jeremy Shockey (2002) and Bubba Franks (2000).
But there was another tight end with Njoku, one who is listed as starting eight more games – 12 of 13 last season – and who added 334 yards and two touchdowns on 28 receptions to Njoku’s 698 yards and eight touchdowns on 43 catches: Christopher Herndon IV.
Herndon, 6-4 and 252 pounds, is soft-spoken and about as ho-hum humble as a talented big guy can get. “The guy caught a bunch of balls,’’ assured University of Miami coach Mark Richt on Tuesday, when asked if Herndon was underappreciated last year. “We appreciate him.’’
The senior from Norcross, Ga., will be the tight end the Canes depend on this season, as the few players behind him are young and inexperienced. And while he may not be colorful in his personality and play, Herndon is not shy. He and the UM coaches know his role as a leader is vital, beginning with the home opener against Bethune-Cookman at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
“I don’t really care about super rah-rah guys,’’ offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said. “That stuff lasts for a certain amount of time. We want guys that the team responds to when they speak...Chris never came out of the game, for the most part, for us last year. He didn’t get the same hype that David did…but I think he is in a really good spot to have a really good year.’’
Herndon played in all 26 games the past two seasons, with 46 catches for 571 yards and three touchdowns, a 12.4-yard-per-catch average. He played in three games in 2014, his freshman season, but didn’t record any stats. As a high school senior in 2013, Herndon led Norcross to the Georgia Class 6A State Championship, choosing the Canes over Auburn and Mississippi State.
“I try to embrace it,’’ Herndon said of his new journey without Njoku. “I don’t try to think too much about it because I still have young guys behind me so I don’t want to just focus on myself and make it all about me. I have to get better every day and bring them along with me.’’
The senior said he was pleased with the progress of sophomore Michael Irvin II, who is his backup. “He was a bit overweight,’’ Herndon said. “He came every day early for his personal workout, got treadmill runs and got his weight down. It’s starting to show on the field. He’s more conditioned. The game is slowing down for him.’’
Herndon said he was grateful for former UM great Jeremy Shockey having helped him the past few months, in particular at Paradise Camp, where Shockey and Herndon coached the campers together.
“He’s the next great tight end that the U has produced,’’ Shockey told the Miami Herald on Tuesday. “If I were a high school kid and wanted to be a tight end, UM would be first on my list. Chris has all the tools. He needs a little dog in him.
“I’m excited to see him play.’’
Richt indicated Tuesday that Herndon will continue to be multidimensional.
“We’ll spread him out, away from the line of scrimmage some,’’ Richt said. “We’ll put him in the backfield, like we did last year, as a true fullback. He run blocks well, pass blocks well, knows how to run routes in space, knows how to run routes as a back.’’
The difference, the coach said, is the Canes will “be more of a three receiver and one tight end set’’ without Njoku, who played in tandem with Herndon.
Herndon just wants to get on the field.
“I’m tired of going against each other every day and pounding each other,’’ Herndon said. “We’d rather go against somebody else.’’
▪ Redshirt junior defensive tackle Gerald Willis returned to practice Tuesday after taking “a leave of absence,’’ UM previously announced, for an undiclosed reason. He will practice with the team this season, but will not play, Richt said.