University of Miami

The years have ‘gone by fast.’ Several Miami Hurricanes almost on the clock in NFL Draft

Miami Hurricanes defensive tackle Gerald Willis III wants the turnover chain.

Miami Hurricanes defensive tackle Gerald Willis III wants the turnover chain. The UM will play LSU in the season opener this weekend.
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Miami Hurricanes defensive tackle Gerald Willis III wants the turnover chain. The UM will play LSU in the season opener this weekend.

It was May 2015, and the Miami Herald was reporting for a feature on high school football players about to begin their college careers during the University of Miami’s first summer session.

Sheldrick Redwine, whom the Herald photographed as an 18-year-old in his final week of classes at Miami Killian High, was one of those players.

“I had tears in my eyes,’’ said Redwine back then in a reflective moment. “I’m going to miss high school. I have so many memories and I’m leaving them all behind.’’

Flash forward nearly four years, and Redwine, a talented UM safety about to enter the NFL Draft, is equally reflective, no doubt feeling the range of emotions that come from ending one significant journey and beginning another.

“It goes very fast,’’ Redwine, 22, said of his time as a Hurricane. “Every time I blink it’s a new week. It’s crazy. I tell everybody I remember my first day on campus taking a picture in front of the Hecht [Athletic] Center. It has gone by fast.’’

Redwine is one of several Hurricanes whose names could be called in the NFL Draft that begins Thursday night with the first round, continues Friday night with the second and third rounds and ends Saturday with the fourth through seventh rounds. At least six Canes are expected to drafted, possibly more, though the draft is such an inexact science that it invariably produces surprises — sometimes uplifting, sometimes depressing.

“I’ll probably be at my grandmother’s house, just relaxing with family and friends — nothing too big,’’ said Redwine, who finished his 2018 senior season with 64 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, three interceptions, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. “All my nerves went out. Somebody is going to get me somewhere. You’re either going to get what you paid for or you’re going to get a steal.”

Joining Redwine as a probable NFL pick will be longtime roommate, close friend, former Killian teammate and fellow safety Jaquan Johnson, as well as formidable defensive tackle Gerald Willis, cornerback Michael Jackson, defensive end Joe Jackson (no relation to Michael) and running back Travis Homer.

Defensive tackle Willis, a 6-2, 302-pound terror in UM’s nationally vaunted defense, is expected to be the first Hurricane taken some time Friday night — possibly even late Thursday. He had 59 tackles, and his 18 tackles for loss ranked 13th nationally for a team that led the nation in that category. He also had four sacks, two pass breakups, five quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery for the nation’s No. 4 overall defense.

“It’s been a long journey for me,’’ said Willis, who transferred to UM after his 2014 freshman season at Florida, where he was dismissed for multiple transgressions, including a physical altercation with former reserve quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg. Suspended more than once at UM, Willis took a leave of absence from playing in 2017, instead practicing on the scout team while he got his life in order.

And what a comeback he made, apparently being a model citizen as he became the spectacular player everyone expected him to be as a five-star prospect out of New Orleans Edna Karr high School. A dislocated finger against Florida State and a groin injury against Pittsburgh set Willis back and prevented him from working out at the NFL Combine. He tweaked his hamstring running his first 40 (unofficial 5.1 seconds) at UM’s Pro Day on March 25.

“He’s a guy you look at [and] you just pencil him in and put him in the starting lineup,’’ ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Monday of Willis. “That’s what he’s going to be, a starter.’’

Another Friday night possibility is Joe Jackson, who some analysts said could be UM’s top pick. Jackson, 6-4 and 275, is one of three UM players who skipped their final year of NCAA eligibility to enter the draft as underclassmen.

Jackson, out of Miami Gulliver Prep, finished his junior season with 47 tackles, 14 ½ tackles for loss, a team-leading nine sacks and team-leading nine quarterback hurries, an interception he ran back 42 yards for his second career touchdown, and two forced fumbles.

“He’s a bully,’’ said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, “and I mean that in the nicest way possible.’’

“Much love to my @canesfootball teammates, coaches, fans, and the University for everything during my time at the U,’’ Jackson posted to Instagram when he announced his decision on Jan. 3. can’t wait for this next chapter as I enter the @NFLdraft!”

Homer, an all-everything type of guy who ended up excelling not only as a runner but as a pass-catcher, blocker and special teams player, also left UM a year early. He finished the season as Miami’s leading rusher with 985 yards and four touchdowns on 164 carries for an outstanding 6-yards-a-carry average. He also had 19 catches for 186 receiving yards.

Homer had a great NFL Scouting Combine as well, running the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds, placing fifth among halfbacks, then posting the second-best vertical leap at his position, jumping 39 ½ inches. His 130-inch broad jump placed him in a tie for first among running backs.

Homer is soft spoken and a man of few words.

But there’s “no softness in his heart at all, which is one of the biggest redeeming qualities for a tailback because you can be the flashiest guy, the fastest guy, but if you’re soft it’s going to be hard to get on the playing field for us,’’ said former UM running backs coach Thomas Brown.

Unless former guard Venzell Boulware, center Tyler Gauthier, running back/speedster Trayone Gray, receiver Darrell Langham, offensive lineman Tyree St. Louis or former quarterback Malik Rosier get drafted, Homer will be the only Canes offensive player taken in the draft.

Defensive picks, however, should abound.

Joining Redwine as expected draftees will be backfield partners Johnson and Michael Jackson.

Jackson, UM’s biggest defensive back at 6-1 and 210 pounds, insisted he could play safety as well as corner. Jackson’s 40-yard-dash time of 4.45 was tied for the seventh fastest among all NFL Combine cornerbacks and 11th fastest when you include safeties.

“When they ask me I just tell them I’m a DB,’’ Jackson said, a hint of a smile soon developing. “It don’t matter where you put me at. I’d be comfortable at anything, even nose guard.’’

Johnson, Redwine’s best buddy, is the one Cane whose draft stock went down after sub-par NFL Combine performances. He was measured at 5-10 and weighed 191 pounds, and was timed with a 4.69 in the 40. Despite the measurables, Johnson undoubtedly was one of the Hurricanes’ most valuable players during his career, on and off the field.

Johnson led UM in tackles last season with 92, and added two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick. Smart and always in the right place at the right time, he was unquestionably the defensive leader for one of the nation’s finest defenses. He was lauded for his week at the Senior Bowl.

“Jaquan Johnson is a guy who has been a big-play guy throughout his career,’’ Kiper, Jr., said after the season. “Look at what he’s done in terms of tackles and making plays in the secondary – showed up in some key games. So, I think he’s an early Day Three type of pick.’’

“But he’s a really good player,’’ ESPN’s Todd McShay said this week, in light of the slow 40, describing him as an “instinctive, tough guy.’’

Said the ever-smiling, upbeat Johnson: “My agent,’’ he said of Drew Rosenhaus, [says] ‘Don’t be overwhelmed by the numbers or the size.’ My play speaks for itself. Regardless of what happens I’m going to get an opportunity.’’

One possible UM draft pick on Saturday would be former graduate transfer defensive tackle Tito Odenigbo, who proved to be a great find for former UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and told the Herald he was superstitious and wouldn’t watch the draft on TV, instead choosing to be with friend in Chicago.

Cornerback Jhavonte Dean, known for his speed; and versatile reserve linebacker Mike Smith are two others defensive players hoping to crack the draft or at least land with an NFL team as undrafted free agents.

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Miami Herald sports writer Susan Miller Degnan has been the Miami Hurricanes football beat writer since 2000, the season before the Canes won it all. She has won several APSE national writing awards and has covered everything from Canes baseball to the College Football Playoff to major marathons to the Olympics.