David Njoku missed his sister’s wedding last Saturday to play football against Virginia.
A tough call to make, but ultimately the right decision, the redshirt freshman tight end acknowledged Wednesday after practicing for No. 23 North Carolina.
“I called her up and wished her the best,’’ Njoku said of his older sis, named Happiness, the sixth child of five girls and four boys born to Nigerian parents. “I feel like this is my family, too, so it wasn’t as bad. And we got the win.”
Not only did the Hurricanes become bowl-eligible, but Njoku – the national high-jump champion as a high school senior – scored his first career touchdown and became only the fourth Hurricanes tight end in the past 20 years to record a reception of at least 58 yards.
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The other three: Clive Walford, Dedrick Epps and Kellen Winslow, Jr.
Winslow, Njoku said, has struck up a friendship with Njoku and worked with him as recently as two weeks ago.
“He helps me with my route running, head fakes, everything,’’ Njoku said. “He was the big thing when he was here so he decided to show me a few things.’’
Njoku, from Cedar Grove in Northern New Jersey, is emerging as one of the Hurricanes’ top playmakers in his first year of college play. His 19.8-yard-per-catch average leads the team after only two starts. Njoku’s 238 receiving yards have been generated on only 12 catches – less than half the touches of each of UM’s top three pass-catchers: Rashawn Scott, Herb Waters and Stacy Coley.
“He’s a crazy athlete… a true freak,’’ said UM quarterback Brad Kaaya. “He can jump out of the gym. He runs fast. Each week he’s making more and more plays.’’
Njoku, one of three UM players of Nigerian descent (the others are defensive end Ufomba Kamalu and offensive tackle Sunny Odogwu), is a first-generation American who started playing football in seventh grade. Only his oldest brother Innocent was born in Nigeria. His nickname has been “Chief” since middle school, he said, because that’s what everyone in his father’s company calls him.
“My dad is into oil, something with an oil business,’’ Njoku said, “They call him ‘Chief’ when he’s in Africa on business.’’
His mom, Stella, owns a clothing store in New Jersey.
The 6-4, 244-pound tight end played receiver at Cedar Grove High, mostly played it on the practice squad last season and sometimes still lines up on the outside. He plans to join track and field again next semester, even if it’s tougher to jump higher when you have the girth and muscle of a tight end.
Njoku’s 7-foot, 1-inch leap won him the outdoor high school state title in May 2014. His 6-foot, 11-inch leap won him the high school national title the next month.
Hampered by a sports hernia injury, Njoku competed in four UM meets during the last academic year and placed sixth in the ACC Indoor Championships in February.
He said he had surgery to repair the hernia in about March, and feels “great’’ now.
“Football is first,’’ Njoku said. “But I have fun competing in track.’’
UM track and field director Amy Deem said Njoku is “passionate’’ about high-jumping and despite concentrating on football, “is jumping on pure natural talent. For him to be competitive at the national level he’s got to improve technically. One of the things I like about having the football guys out there is they are very competitive. I like the attitude.’’
Njoku’s rise in football, it turns out, followed a play he’d like to forget – but one that has driven him. On second-and-five from the Florida State 48-yard line during the opening series at FSU, a national television audience watched as a slant pass went through the hands of the in-stride Njoku.
“We hit that slant and he has at least 40 yards,’’ UM offensive coordinator James Coley said Wednesday. “And he had an offensive pass interference in that game, pushed off a guy – silly stuff. Since then it has been really different with him. All the guys know he’s special and push him in practice. Now he shows up when his number is dialed.
“His athleticism is elite.’’
Interim head coach Larry Scott — UM’s tight ends coach — said Njoku “has always been a natural route runner and pass catcher, but where he has really grown is in his blocking.”
UM’s three main tight ends — sophomore Chris Herndon and junior Stan Dobard, Njoku’s roommates, are the other two — have combined for 430 yards and three touchdowns.
Njoku chose Miami (6-3, 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) over finalists that included Ohio State, and said he’s ready to take the next step in his football career. And that, he said, begins with the Tar Heels (8-1, 5-0) and their third-ranked pass defense.
“We’ve just got to finish this week strong,’’ Njoku said. “As Coach Scott says, ‘Win the day, win the week and then win the game.’ ”