MIAMI — Doubled over after a set of cable flys, David Njoku let out a yell. A trainer, walking past, turned his head and raised his eyebrows. Njoku stood, gathered his will, and grabbed the pull-up bar. Grimacing, he began to haul his 6-foot-4, 245-pound body skyward.
His smile returned quickly. After finishing the set he playfully sparred with a teammate, throwing left-right-right combos, on his way to attack another drill.
It was the second of three workout sessions in an eight-hour day, a grueling series of lifts, presses and pulls in between speed training and prescribed rest. He does a different routine six days a week, and the results are showing. In the morning, as he ran 10-yard splits, the laser timer displayed numbers that would make NFL coaching staffs line up to greet him.
The former University of Miami tight end will be a much watched participant in the NFL Scouting Combine next week in Indianapolis, with a rare combination of size, speed — those around him expect he will run the 40-yard dash in the in the 4.5-second range — agility and leaping ability. ESPN’s Todd McShay and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, both of whom rank Njoku as the No. 13 overall player in the draft, are two of the numerous analysts who consider him a surefire first-round pick.
He knows all that, and appreciates the love, but this is what drives Njoku at this moment: he wants to prove he’s better than Alabama’s O.J. Howard, another top prospect, and everyone else in a loaded tight end class.
That, he admitted after his workout, “has a nice sound to it.”
“People would ask me before I declared, ‘Why don’t you just wait another year? The tight end class this year is strong,'” Njoku said, sitting on a workout bench and sipping a protein shake. “Honestly, that pushed me even harder to declare this year because I wouldn’t want it easy. I want to work for it. I want to get it the way a man should, by working hard for it. I’m excited for it. I’m excited to see what he’s capable of doing. I’m really excited to see everybody.”
Njoku, one of nine Hurricanes traveling to Indianapolis next week for the NFL Scouting Combine, is about to become part of a legendary lineage.
When the NFL draft commences April 27 in Philadelphia, Njoku will become the 11th Hurricanes tight end drafted since 2000, following the likes of Bubba Franks, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow, Greg Olsen and Jimmy Graham. Eight have gone in the third round or higher. Njoku could be the fifth first-rounder.
In two seasons at Miami, he caught 64 passes for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns. As a redshirt sophomore, he led ACC tight ends with 698 yards and eight touchdowns on 43 catches. Among Power Five tight ends, only Mississippi senior Evan Engram had more yards (926, on 65 catches). In Miami history, only Winslow (726 yards in 2002) produced more in a single year.
He left Miami with two seasons of eligibility remaining. In doing so, he became one of the youngest players to enter the draft. Since 2007, when Houston made 19-year-old defensive end Amobi Okoye the youngest draft pick ever, one player was selected as a 20-year-old. Njoku turns 21 on July 10.
That age and ability are two reasons CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler reported one anonymous NFL tight end coach viewing Njoku as having “the most upside he’s ever seen in a TE prospect.”
He tries to reach it at Core Fitness in Miami’s Wynwood section, along with several former Canes training for the Combine. Cornerback Corn Elder, wide receiver Stacy Coley, safety Jamal Carter and punter Justin Vogel call him “Jok,” with a soft “k” that makes it sound more like “Joe” than “joke.” Their trainer, Andy Luances, permits no fooling. He let out a yell of his own when, during warmups for a combine-style drill, the players stared a little too long out the window as an attractive woman crossed the street.
But Luances wasn’t angry with Njoku too long.
“He’s pretty exceptional,” he said, after watching him clear most of a 20-yard track with five bounding leaps. “His explosive power is off the charts. For his height and his size, you don’t see it very often. He can jump out of the gym. When he wants to turn it on, he can turn it on better than anybody else. I haven’t seen a guy that big jump or run like that before.”
“He’s maybe the most athletic player in the draft,” Elder said.
Njoku isn’t hearing them.
“Everything,” he said, when asked about the weak parts of his profile. “I didn’t perfect anything in any aspect. I’m nowhere near where I think I should be.”
Coming to compete
David is the seventh of nine children born to Innocent and Stella Njoku. The oldest of their four boys and five girls, Innocent Jr., was born in Nigeria. His parents brought him from Owerri, the capital of Iwo State in southeastern Nigeria, to America in 1987. David said they had $26 when they arrived. They eventually settled in Cedar Grove, N.J.
In a family of achievers, he “had to be competitive to make it.” He said his father, whom he calls Chief, is “in the oil business,” and his mother owns a clothing store in New Jersey. They have some prodigious progeny. Innocent Jr., now 29, is a neurosurgeon in upstate New York. Faith is a medical student at UC-Irvine and hold multiple track records at Rutgers-Newark. Gladys recently earned a biomedical engineering degree and was a high-jump national champ at Stevens Tech in New Jersey.
“We’re not done yet,” David said.
Indeed. Evidence, a wide receiver who recently signed with Miami, wants to outdo his brother’s Hurricanes achievements, and at 6-6 is even taller. David said Charles, the youngest at 15, “is better than both of us.”
Their family pride extends across the sea. The Njokus keep Igbo, the language of their tribe, alive at home. David speaks “a little,” he said. “I understand a lot.” He shows his love for Nigeria, a land he has visited a handful of times, by peppering his social media posts with emojis of its green and white flag. “When I do this I feel like I have my people behind me,” he said. It’s likely he would have the one-time prodigy Okoye, an Igbo man born in Iwo’s neighboring Anambra State, behind him. He also counts those great UM tight ends as his people. He is particularly close to Shockey.
“I talk to him all the time,” Njoku said. “He just tells me, ‘Kill or be killed’ — You’ve got to compete to get your food, to get your money, you know? Then again, I knew that when I was younger. I just compete. I love competing.”
He came to Miami as a wide receiver in 2014 and during his redshirt season, in which he also competed on UM’s track team, bulked up enough that coach Al Golden tried him for a week at linebacker. At lunch Thursday, his one-time roommate and current training partner, former Canes tight end Stan Dobard, ribbed him about a photo they pass around in a group chat, of a skeptical-looking Njoku wearing a linebacker’s jersey number.
“I made that 50 look good,” Njoku retorted.
Golden, who deserves credit for recruiting him away from Ohio State, switched him back to No. 86. Coach Mark Richt benefited most.
A stellar season
Miami’s new coaching staff watched in admiration last year as Njoku created a long highlight reel. His 3-yard somersault into the end zone against Pittsburgh was chosen among the ACC’s top plays of the year. His agent, Malki Kawa, said one move against North Carolina State, where Njoku planted his foot and made a defensive back look silly, was when he knew, “I’ve got to sign this kid.”
Njoku knew he was going pro by the time he scored against West Virginia, when he dragged safety Jarrod Harper five yards before breaking his grip, stiff-arming another defender and diving into the end zone. He showed the “money” hand sign after that play. Afterward, he took selfies with fans in the stands afterward, flashing a brilliant smile.
He feels his time as a Hurricane was “good,” he said. “Ups and downs, adversity hit many times, and you show who you are by how you respond to it. I met great people. I met not so great people. I’ve been through it all at Miami, I feel like. It’s the best place to be. I don’t know why you’d go anywhere else.”
Training for the combine, which begins Tuesday, brings him back to those high school track meets he used to rule. Most high-jumpers are rail-thin, but he was national champion with a 7-foot-1 personal best at a solid 225 pounds. When he came in fifth at New Balance Outdoor Nationals as a junior, he was disgusted. “Some saw it as a blessing to be there,” he said. “I was embarrassed.” He won it all the following year.
His current competition is Howard, Engram and a host of other tight ends of unknown prowess. At lunch Thursday, as they dug into plates of hibachi rice and lobster, steak and chicken at a local Japanese spot, Kawa showed him video highlights of a 6-6, 277-pound Division 2 tight end named Adam Shaheen. The diners — Njoku, Dobard and fellow Kawa clients Brandon Radcliff, a running back out of Louisville, and Akron cornerback Larry Hope — agreed that Shaheen is good.
They know Njoku is better.
Is he best tight end in this college football draft class? “It clicked before last season that I can be,” Njoku said. “After the season, when I declared, it clicked that I should be. Now, I have to be.”
Soon he’ll be competing with the best pros, including Olsen, who was second among NFL tight ends in receiving yards (1,073), and Graham (third, 923). As for where he might play, both the Miami Dolphins and his hometown New York Giants could use him. He would love either, but he’ll be happy wherever he lands.
“No matter where it is, I just know I’m going to be able to play myself on Madden,” he said, laughing. That, and the excitement he shows when displaying pictures of the black SUV he wants to purchase, reminds you he’s still about five months from 21.
“Getting paid a million dollars a year just to live my dream. I’m just blessed,” he said. “I can’t thank God enough for what he’s done for me.”
No, he’s not done yet.