2018 NFL Draft: Old soul Kendrick Norton comes from a strong family

Kendrick Norton opened his first training camp practice by hitting the field before his teammates. (Matt Porter)

On. Aug. 6, 2015, Kendrick Norton hit the field early, before his teammates, at his first college practice. (Matt Porter/The Palm Beach Post)

Kendrick Norton is older than most 20-year-olds.

He spent a lot of time around his grandparents when he was younger, where he picked up a love for bass fishing, card games and soul music. On their post-practice Instagram stories, his Hurricanes teammates battle-rapped in the locker room. Norton crooned Bobby Womack tunes in his car. Miami’s rich nightlife has tempted many, but Norton was rarely seen out on the town.

“I’d rather hang out around the house,” he said last week. “When I’m not playing football or training, I’m usually fishing. I like the old-school music, playing cards — all the old-people activities.”

Norton’s grown-man approach will endear him to his future bosses. A 6-foot-3, 315-pound defensive tackle, he left Miami after his junior season with hopes of securing an NFL job. He is projected as a mid-round pick, and is certain to be one of six-to-eight Hurricanes drafted between Thursday and Saturday.

He and roommate R.J. McIntosh — who also turned pro early and could be a second-day choice — were two of the ACC’s best interior duos the last two years. Norton, a space-eating run-stuffer, earned third-team All-ACC status as a sophomore (10.0 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks) and made honorable mention last season, in which 6.5 of his 26 tackles went for a loss.

He added a pair of sacks, one of which birthed a memorable celebration: Norton, sitting on the Doak Campbell Stadium grass, played air guitar with the leg of Florida State quarterback James Blackman.

Norton’s family enjoys music. It is a strong family, but not a particularly famous one. His pre-draft prospect bio on the NFL’s official website inaccurately stated he is the grandson of boxer Ken Norton and the son of Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., the former Pro Bowl linebacker. Not true, according to those who would know better.

“I wish,” said his mother, LaTess Stephens. “I was going to call about some back child support.”

She was joking, serving up that line deadpan. A hospice nurse who lives in Orange Park, she often uses humor to soften others’ pain. Like many nurses, she is matter-of-fact about her own.

June 7 was a joyous day in her household, right up until the day Kendrick turned 18. The family, which included brothers Kamari, 17, and Leanthony, 14, and sister Leah, 16, was ready to celebrate their oldest brother’s birthday. Kendrick’s stepfather, Lee Stephens, did not join them. He died overnight.

“He had a heart attack,” LaTess Stephens said. “He went to sleep and didn’t wake up.”

He was a major force in Norton’s life, she said, after she and Kendrick’s father, Kendrick Norton Sr., of Monticello, split when he was 2 (Norton and his father keep in contact). “He was the T-ball coach,” she said. “He taught him how to drive. He taught him everything.” He guided him through the recruiting process, during which the All-American from Jacksonville-Trinity Christian chose Miami over Auburn. Norton, who worked at his stepfather’s company, Stephens Security, as a teenager, chose criminal justice as a major.

Hurricanes freshman nose tackle Kendrick Norton picked up a sack in his collegiate debut. (Getty Images)

Kendrick Norton’s first career sack came as a freshman against Bethune-Cookman in 2015. (Getty Images)

He wanted to honor his stepfather with his on-field work, too.

A week after the funeral, Norton reported to campus. Two weeks later, Aug. 6, training camp began. The heat index approached triple digits in Coral Gables that morning. After warmups, one out-of-shape offensive lineman stood on the field and tossed his breakfast onto the turf.

Norton was not so ill-prepared. As his teammates were taping their ankles and tying their cleats before practice, the freshman defensive tackle was alone on the field, dipping his shoulders and churning his feet. He was beating imaginary guards with hard bursts. He was tracing the steps of plays Miami coaches would run that day, while using the game to soothe his heartache.

“Football is like my outlet for life,” he said. “It keeps me calm. You get to go out there and leave everything. You can bring all your anger and frustrations out and leave it all in between the lines.”

In Jacksonville, his calm mother was concerned. She would call then-UM assistants Hurlie Brown and Jethro Franklin, making sure they were checking on her son. “They said he’s doing fine, but he doesn’t really show any emotion,” she recalled. “Every time I called him he would say, ‘I’m good, Mom. This is what Daddy would have wanted.'”

Norton had a sack in his first college game, and soon became one of the Hurricanes’ most valuable defenders. At Pro Day, he had the attention of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who tutored he and other UM defensive linemen in a few drills. The coach who recruited him to UM, Al Golden, now coaches tight ends with the Detroit Lions.  The Dolphins, who could be looking for a defensive tackle in the later rounds, might grab him if available.

“I heard someone tell me you’re supposed to write a story with every play,” Norton said. “That’s how I try to play the game.”

This chapter ends happily. When he turns 21 on June 7, he will be preparing for his first NFL training camp. He’ll take a brief break to celebrate with his family, and will most likely be in a singing mood.

Hurricanes’ potential pros
With NFL.com draft projection

DE Chad Thomas: Rounds 4-5

DT RJ McIntosh: Rounds 4-5

DT Kendrick Norton: Rounds 4-5

TE Chris Herndon: Rounds 4-5

RB Mark Walton: Rounds 4-5

WR Braxton Berrios: Rounds 6-7

OG Kc McDermott: priority free agent

K Michael Badgley: priority free agent

CB Dee Delaney: priority free agent

OG Trevor Darling: priority free agent

DE Trent Harris: no projection

 

DT Anthony Moten: no projection