David Njoku should be big factor in Miami-West Virginia Russell Athletic Bowl matchup

David Njoku puts a stiff-arm on a North Carolina defender. (Getty Images)

David Njoku puts a stiff-arm on a North Carolina defender. (Getty Images)

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KISSIMMEE– David Njoku dove into the end zone after catching a pass from quarterback Brad Kaaya. It was like their connection in the Pittsburgh game, minus the forward flip, the defenders, the TV cameras and the cheering crowd.

It was one moment during a practice before the Russell Athletic Bowl, and Njoku was smiling, enjoying himself. If Wednesday’s game is his last as a Hurricane — and it appears it will be — he might be smiling more.

Njoku, who has become one of Miami’s top weapons in the latter half of his draft-eligible, redshirt sophomore season, will be a new challenge for West Virginia.

The best tight ends are too fast for linebackers, and too strong for defensive backs. Njoku has been that kind of matchup nightmare. Kaaya has found the chiseled, 6-foot-4, 245-pound former national champion high-jumper wearing No. 86, and Njoku has done the rest.

The Cedar Grove, N.J. native leads Power Five tight ends in yards per catch average (17.21), thanks to four receptions of 40-plus yards, including a career-long of 76 yards against Duke. With 654 yards and seven touchdowns, he is two yards and one touchdown behind Louisville’s Cole Hikutini for the ACC lead among tight ends, despite having 11 fewer receptions (38) than Hikutini.

Miami offensive coordinator Thomas Brown called players of Njoku’s caliber “hard to find,” and said he’s become even more tough to defend as he’s improved his blocking.

“I don’t know if they can,” Brown said, when asked if teams have focused on Njoku more. “In the open field, I think it’s tough to key in on him because we do so much with him offensively. He might be at the point of attack blocking, he could be backside, he could be going out for a route. We try to mix it up, and he has to do all of it in the offense.”

Plenty of great wide receivers call the Big 12 home, but it is not the land of tight ends. In fact, none of the top 50 pass-catchers in the league play that position. The top stat-getter is Oklahoma State senior Blake Jarwin, who leads conference tight ends in receptions (17) and yards (289). Jarwin, 6-5 and 248 pounds, caught one pass for 23 yards in the Cowboys’ 37-20 win over WVU in October.

“We haven’t really played teams with tight ends, so it will be different,” said cornerback Rasul Douglas, who led the Big 12 in interceptions (eight). “He might become my responsibility and if he does I will respect the challenge. I will be physical with him at the line of scrimmage and try to see if he can beat me vertically.”

The Mountaineers are used to seeing talented receivers like Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook, the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s best. He had two catches, 100 yards and a touchdown against the Mountaineers. Oklahoma State’s James Washington (six catches, 117 yards) and Texas Tech’s Jonathan Giles (eight catches, 136 yards, two scores), Iowa State’s Allen Lazard (four catches, 103 yards) and Baylor’s KD Cannon (five catches, 84 yards, touchdown) racked up yards on WVU.  Aside from Lazard (6-5, 223), those receivers are around six feet.

Douglas compared Miami’s offense to BYU, which put 32 points on West Virginia in September. But the Mountaineers scored 35, and Douglas returned an interception 54 yards for a score. “I would compare them because they have a good (running) back and good outside receivers,” he said. “They are a balanced team.”

Njoku, who was not made available to reporters this week, said last week he will decide after the game whether he will enter the NFL draft (though according to those at UM, it would be stunning if he returned to school).

His immediate focus is helping snap Miami’s 10-year stretch without a bowl win.

“That doesn’t sound right — we are Miami,” Njoku said. “That is a big deal, and we are trying to change that this year.”

 

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