The two most anticipated decisions of Miami’s offseason have been made: starting defensive tackles Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh, despite consultation from coach Mark Richt, are heading to the NFL.
McIntosh announced his choice late Monday afternoon on Instagram, a few hours later than Norton. He wrote that he made his choice “after all the thinking, talking to my parents, and praying to my Heavenly Father.” His post was accompanied by a photo of him wearing his No. 80 uniform, taking the field in front of giant ‘U’ flag.
“This decision wasn’t an easy one, as I love being a hurricane, but I feel I’m ready for the next step in realizing my dreams of being an nfl football player,” Norton wrote on Instagram, accompanied by a picture of him celebrating a sack of Florida State quarterback James Blackman. Norton, in one of the more memorable sack celebrations of the year, mimicked playing guitar with Blackman’s leg.
Though he wanted an encore, Richt will cheer them as he leaves.
“Like we told them, we’re not mad if you decide to go,” Richt said Monday morning on WQAM, describing his meeting with both last weekend as positive. “We just want you to make the decision based on the best available information, and do what’s best for you.”
McIntosh, listed at 6-4 and 293 pounds, won the team’s defensive MVP award after registering 52 tackles (12.5 for loss), 2.5 sacks and seven pass break-ups, the most by an ACC defensive lineman in 2017 and tied for the fourth-most in the last decade. He also recovered a fumble and had Miami’s longest return — 35 yards — of the year.
“He’s a good player who could be a very good player down the road,” said longtime NFL Draft analyst Tony Pauline, who pegs McIntosh as a third-rounder.
Miami has had at least one first-rounder in each of the last three drafts: offensive tackle Ereck Flowers and wide receiver Phillip Dorsett in 2015, cornerback Artie Burns in 2016 and tight end David Njoku last year. McIntosh told reporters before the Orange Bowl he received feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Board that it did not project him as a first- or second-rounder. Those are the only two round-based grades the board offers.
“He’s an athletic guy,’ said Pauline, who said McIntosh fits as either a defensive tackle in a 4-3 or a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. “The lack of size is an issue. He needs to get stronger and keep his quickness and agility. He’s been a decent player for a while, it’s a matter of how much growth potential does he have?”
Norton (6-3, 312), whom Pauline projects as a fifth-round pick, finished with 26 tackles (6.5 for loss) and 2.0 sacks in his junior season. At the NFL level, he won’t be a “playmaker,” Pauline said, but a “big gap-occupier type of guy who will take on blocks and let the linebackers make plays on the ball. He could grow into a zero-technique, a nose tackle. He’s not there yet, but he’s got that playing style. He’s not getting any taller. He could get wider, which could be a benefit for him.”
Miami now has a sizable hole in the middle of its defensive line.
Of a possible 935 snaps between the regular season and ACC Championship Game, McIntosh played 682, the highest number of any defensive player besides safety Jaquan Johnson (816), middle linebacker Shaq Quarterman (737), cornerback Malek Young (724) and safety Sheldrick Redwine (685).
Norton played a healthy amount, too (527). UM also loses graduating senior Anthony Moten, its most-used reserve (260 snaps) and little-used Ryan Fines (seven snaps), who transferred.
The Hurricanes’ defensive tackle rotation in 2018 will include redshirt senior Gerald Willis, a troubled former blue-chip prospect who took a leave of absence last season. Willis, listed at 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds, practiced with the team and was a handful for UM’s reserve offensive linemen.
Richt and his staff have long been encouraged by Willis, despite his personal issues.
“He was a terror on the scout team all year long,” Richt said last week. “We could hardly block the guy. I think he’ll do well. I think he’ll do very well.”
Willis, a New Orleans native, played in nine games in 2016 after transferring from Florida and sitting out a season to satisfy NCAA rules. He had 19 tackles (5.5 for loss) and 1.5 sacks as a redshirt sophomore.
The other potential starter is Pat Bethel (6-3, 285) played 197 snaps after switching from defensive end and adding some 30 pounds. He will be a junior.
Big Jon Ford (40 snaps as a true freshman) will have an offseason to reshape his body, after enrolling last August at 6-5 and nearly 320 pounds. The only other returnee on scholarship is redshirt sophomore Tyreic Martin, who didn’t play last year.
UM hopes to add four-star recruit Nesta Silvera (6-2, 308), a standout at the Army All-American Bowl, and ideally, at least one other tackle.
The defense, which returns starting end Joe Jackson and starting linebackers Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud, got a boost when cornerback Michael Jackson and safety Jaquan Johnson announced they will return to school.