RJ McIntosh grew up loving the University of Miami.
So did Mark Walton.
After all, both are from South Florida — defensive tackle McIntosh, out of Cardinal Gibbons High in Fort Lauderdale and running back Walton, out of Miami Booker T. Washington — and both grew up watching some mighty fine Canes' football.
But along with defensive tackle Kendrick Norton, from Jacksonville, they left the program they coveted before their NCAA eligibility had elapsed, to conquer another goal: The NFL.
"Every time I'm around the University of Miami now I get kind of emotional,'' said Walton, 21, who graduated from high school early to start his UM journey, rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns his sophomore season and then sustained a season-ending ligament tear in his right ankle after entering the fourth game of 2017 — against FSU — second in the nation with 9.1-yards-per-carry and fifth with 134.3 rushing yards per game.
"Sometimes I think, 'What if I had stayed?' the 5-9 1/2, 202-pound Walton said. "But I made my decision, so here I am.''
McIntosh, 21, a physically imposing 6-4 1/2 and 288 pounds, who, like Walton, is gifted in many aspects of the game, has had his own challenges. He discovered he had a thyroid condition during the NFL Scouting Combine, lost weight, but now has it controlled medically and is back to his old self.
This past season, McIntosh started all 13 games and had 52 tackles. His 12 1/2 tackles for loss were tied for the lead with fellow draft-eligible defensive end Chad Thomas. McIntosh also had 2 1/2 sacks, seven pass breakups, four quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery that he turned into a 35-yard down rumble down field.
"I love Miami — the university, the city, the fans, everything about it,'' McIntosh said this week, "but I feel the same as when I first made my decision to enter the draft. It was the right time for me. It came down to me just chasing my dream.
"I prayed about it, and now I'll be grateful for whoever picks me and wherever I go. I'm a coachable guy. I'm a smart guy. And I'm hungry."
For the first time since 2015 when offensive lineman Ereck Flowers went ninth overall to the New York Giants, the Hurricanes will not have a player chosen in the first round. The draft will be televised live at 8 p.m. Thursday from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas — site of the UM season opener on Sunday, September 2, against LSU.
The second and third rounds will be broadcast on Friday night, and the fourth through seventh rounds will air on Saturday afternoon. The projections are all over the place, with McIntosh predicted to go as high as the second round by a couple of analysts but mostly late Friday as a third-round pick or early Saturday as a fourth- or even fifth-rounder.
Norton is projected to likely be drafted on Saturday.
And though Walton's ankle injury has completely healed, it no doubt set him back regarding projections, putting him anywhere from the third through fifth rounds.
"I don't get caught up researching what they project,'' said Walton, whose mother and father are both deceased, thus making him responsible for helping to support his siblings, as well as his girlfriend and 1-year-old daughter Ma'Lani Nicole. "I just want to go to a team that's ready to win right now.''
New Miami Dolphins running back Frank Gore, a Canes legend, is a fan of Walton's.
"He'll be fine,'' Gore told the Miami Herald last week at his UM Sports Hall of Fame induction. "Mark does everything — catches, runs, is tough, loves the game. That's what we do when we're from Miami. We live, sleep, eat football.
"Don't matter what he gets picked, as long as he gets out there, he'll show that team they made the right choice.''
Walton said he has had "several private workouts,'' including for the New York Giants "two weeks ago.''
"I'd love to play in New York,'' he said. "When I made my visit I felt very comfortable with the coaches and players. They treated me like family.''
Other Hurricanes expected to get drafted this weekend include receiver and punt-returner Braxton Berrios, a fan favorite who had an excellent season as UM's No. 1 pass-catcher with 679 receiving yards and nine touchdowns; D-end Thomas, who could be picked anywhere from the third to fifth rounds; tight end Chris Herndon, a 6-4, 245-pound steady, dependable talent who was sidelined in late November by season-ending MCL surgery on his left knee.
The Canes who might get selected or should certainly be undrafted free agents are 6-6, 311-pound offensive tackle/guard Kc McDermott; defensive end Trent Harris; kicker Michael Badgley; offensive guard Trevor Darling; cornerback Dee Delaney; and defensive tackle Anthony Moten.
McIntosh, like Walton, said he'll likely "shed tears'' when he gets chosen. "But they will be tears of joy.''