Barry Jackson

NFL eyeing a bunch of Hurricanes. Here’s some of the feedback on Miami’s prospects.

Miami Hurricanes safety Jaquan Johnson (4) returns an interception for a third quarter touchdown during the UM-Virginia game last November. According to evaluators and analysts, Johnson projects as a first- or second-day draft pick next April.
Miami Hurricanes safety Jaquan Johnson (4) returns an interception for a third quarter touchdown during the UM-Virginia game last November. According to evaluators and analysts, Johnson projects as a first- or second-day draft pick next April. adiaz@miamiherald.com

One of the reasons for UM’s high preseason ranking (eighth in the AP) poll is that the Canes are again loaded with NFL-caliber talent.

One of several NFL scouts who attended a closed Canes practice this month said that he departed very impressed. In fact, some evaluators believe UM could have three first-round picks (mix of seniors and underclassmen) if they play to their capability.

At the top of the list among seniors: safety Jaquan Johnson, cornerback Michael Jackson and defensive tackle Gerald Willis.

Johnson is being rated anywhere from a late first-rounder to a second-day pick. One NFC evaluator gave him a third-round grade because “he’s obviously not that big” but others rate him higher.

This comment from a UM staffer was telling about Johnson: “There were two guys on the roster last year that were draft eligible that I thought were old school Miami guys – Mark Walton on offense and Jaquan Johnson. I think Jaquan would be a successful Miami Hurricane in any era. Even if he were here with Ed Reed, he would have found a way to get on the field. He’s a damn good player.”

Safeties coach Ephraim Banda put it this way: “A lot of NFL people are asking what type of player he is. Is he a leader? An alpha? Is he the guy who gets you lined up? My answer is 100 percent yes.

“They ask what type of player he is in locker room. Jaquan is the guy, has a natural innate ability to lead. He can play in the box [and outside the box], he can play on third down, can play man coverage and zone coverage and has all the intangibles NFL head coaches and personnel guys know have to be there for a great player to happen.”

Miami Hurricanes cornerback Michael Jackson agrees that it takes a village. He is thrilled with UM’s reaction to his new son.

One NFL scout said he’s particularly intrigued by Willis, who has the size and strength teams covet.

Jackson was projected as a mid-round pick if he had gone pro last spring but could go much higher because of his size (6-1), speed and playmaking ability. One evaluator said some believe he can play safety or corner.

“Jackson’s size, athleticism and physicality could make him a top-20 pick,” said USA Today analyst and former NFL scout Luke Easterling.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper ranks Johnson first among senior safeties and Jackson second among senior corners.

And ESPN’s Todd McShay tells me he ranks Johnson 58th and Michael Jackson 101st among all draft-eligible players. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has Johnson 17th and Jackson 24th in his first mock draft.

McShay said Johnson ”has small hands, yet he has the instincts and ball skills to develop into a playmaker. He’s an above average tackler who chases with good effort and tends to take sound pursuit angles. He’s undersized, but he’s tough and he has a knack for getting around blocks when he plays in the box. He’s a team captain with excellent football character.”

University of Miami defensive lineman Gerald Willis (9) speaks Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018, after practice at Greentree Fields in Coral Gables.

Jackson, according to McShay, “grades out as a versatile reserve defensive back who fits best in a press and zone heavy scheme. His instincts, toughness and ball skills make him an intriguing early Day 3 prospect.”

Bleacher Report’s Miller calls Jackson “one of the ACC’s best defenders in 2017. His size (6 feet 1, 200 pounds) and experience coming out of Miami make Jackson one of the best corners in the upcoming class.”

Among juniors, scouts are eyeing receiver Ahmmon Richards, defensive end Joe Jackson and linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Mike Pinckney and Zach McCloud.

CBS Sports has Richards 10th and Joe Jackson 29th in its way-too-early mock draft. USA Today has Michael Jackson 18th, Richards 19th and Joe Jackson 30th. Bleacher Report has Joe Jackson 23rd.

Of Richards, McShay said he “projects as a fringe Day 2 pick based on his 2017 tape and durability concerns but he has the ability to move up boards if he’s able to stay healthy and he’s more consistent catching the football in 2018.

“Richards has the top-end speed to get behind the coverage and he tracks the deep ball. He’s a tough open field runner with the balance, open field instincts and speed to threaten after the catch. He tempos his routes well and he has the burst to quickly separate from man coverage. He runs hard after the catch and he looks to flat back defenders when he gets an angle as a blocker. He flashes the ability to make some tough catches, but he’s not a natural hands catcher and he drops far too many passes on his 2017 tape.”

Meanwhile, among draft-eligible underclassmen, Kiper has Joe Jackson fifth among defensive ends, Quarterman second among inside linebackers and Pinckney fourth among outside linebackers.

McShay is especially high on Joe Jackson of those four junior defensive players, saying: “Jackson presses offensive tackles, tracks the quarterback and flashes the ability to get off the block in time to finish as a pass rusher. He has slightly above average initial quickness and closing speed. His pads tend to rise and he doesn’t regularly win with speed to power. He doesn’t knock offensive tackles off balance with violent hands and he doesn’t counter well. He’s a disruptive run defender with enough quickness to make some plays in the backfield and deliver the initial blow but he plays high and he gives ground at times.

“He has the length to keep blockers off his frame but he takes too long to shed when blockers get their hands on him. He flashes some upside as an interior pass rusher but he’s on the tighter side for a 3-4 OLB conversion candidate and his best fit is clearly at 4-3 DE.... Jackson grades out as a rotational 4-3 DE and he projects as a Day 3 pick heading into his true junior season.”

And this is noteworthy: McShay believes junior running back Travis Homer has made himself into a legitimate pro prospect, ranking him 47th overall in his top 150.

“Homer gives his blockers time to get into position and he has a good feel for cutback lanes. He has above average balance and he rarely goes down on initial contact,” McShay said.

“He doesn’t have the brute strength to push the pile but he keeps fighting and picks up yards with second effort when he doesn’t get a seam. He’s quick enough to turn the corner and he shows deceptive top-end speed when he gets a vertical seam. He has the lateral mobility to bounce between seams on inside runs and he flashes the ability to make defenders miss.

“He drops some passes but he also flashes the ability to catch with hands and he’s an adequate route runner with experience lining up in the slot. His effort, technique and awareness in pass [protection] are all above average. His career fumble percentage (1.1%) is adequate and his 2017 fumble percentage (.6%) is good. Homer grades out as a No. 2 back with the ability to contribute on third down. If he builds on last year’s performance, he could go on Day 2 of the draft.”

Among seniors beyond Jaquan Johnson, Michael Jackson and Willis, McShay believes safety Sheldrick Redwine, left tackle Tyree St. Louis and defensive end Demetrius Jackson also will warrant an NFL look.

And an NFL executive told NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah last season that senior Malik Rosier “shows the arm talent to develop into a next-level prospect with another year under (coach Mark) Richt.”

The caveat with all this: Players’ stock can change dramatically during a season. Some had Brad Kaaya as a potential first-rounder before he slid to the sixth round in the 2017 draft.

We’re in the midst of 10 consecutive days of Canes columns leading up to Miami-LSU. Here’s the archive page for the first three, including Malik Rosier telling us about a change he has made, what we’re hearing on backup quarterback, Kirk Herbstreit’s views of UM and lots of personnel notes.

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