There’s going to be a huge hole in the middle of the Miami Hurricanes defensive line in 2018 – both literally and figuratively.
After reports surfaced that defensive tackles RJ McIntosh and Kendrick Norton would be forgoing their senior years, both man-size players confirmed their decisions by making announcements on their social media accounts that they both will be entering the 2018 NFL Draft.
Well I guess it’s time… after all the thinking, talking to my… https://t.co/o6oHu62h2e
— Rj Mcintosh (@Big__80) January 8, 2018
After a lot of thought, prayer, talking to my family and coaches, I’ve decided to make myself… https://t.co/4l8yD62fQN
— Kendrick Norton Jr™ (@norton_kendrick) January 8, 2018
Losing either one would have been difficult enough for the Hurricanes defensive front to withstand, but losing both McIntosh and “Big Thick” a year early will be felt.
McIntosh was named the Hurricanes’ defensive MVP this season after he racked up 52 total tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, seven pass breakups, and a fumble return. Coming to Miami as a three-star prospect from Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons, McIntosh turned himself into a defensive stalwart along the defensive front – starting 25 straight games over the past two seasons.
McIntosh’s durability also showed in the fact that he logged the most snaps (682) of any of Miami’s defensive linemen this season – finishing behind only Jaquan Johnson (816), Shaquille Quarterman (737), cornerback Malek Young (724) and safety Sheldrick Redwine (685).
Norton played his fair share of snaps in 2017, too (527) and he also was a pillar of consistency along UM’s defensive line. Playing since his freshman year, Norton appeared in 38 games for the Hurricanes – making 24 starts over the past two years while recording 65 total tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss in that span.
“Big Thick” gave himself instant “Canes Hero” status for the hit he put on Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois in 2016.
And he rose to “Guitar Hero” status for his post-tackle antics after he brought down Seminoles quarterback James Blackman during Miami’s 2017 victory.
As far as their pro prospects, McIntosh has received a bit more buzz than his roommate and best friend Norton.
Some draft analysts have given McIntosh a third-round grade while Norton has been pegged as a possible fifth-round pick.
Where McIntosh has the advantage is in his ability to be stout against the run while also making plays behind the line of scrimmage from the defensive tackle position in a 4-3 scheme – like the Canes have run under defensive coordinator Manny Diaz – or even from the defensive end position in a 3-4 scheme.
Norton, on the other hand, projects more as a “zero technique” or nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme – cutting down the number of teams that may show interest and pigeon-holing him as a two-down, run-stopping defensive lineman.
Filling The Gap
Trying to fill the nearly 625-pound void in the middle of Miami’s D-Line will be a committee of either young and unproven players or little-used veterans.
Because fellow defensive tackles Anthony Moten graduated and Ryan Fines transferred, the Hurricanes will be desperately looking for players to step in and anchor the line for a team that will have lofty expectations in 2018.
Pat Bethel could be an option to start for the Canes. Bethel, who will be a junior next season, moved to defensive tackle from defensive end in 2017 and played just 197 snaps.
Redshirt sophomore Tyreic Martin didn’t see any action in 2017, but should be given plenty of opportunities to prove himself worthy of playing time in 2018.
Jon Ford, the former four-star recruit from Fort Lauderdale Dillard, joined the Canes this past August and saw very limited action in 2017. Ford, listed at 6-foot-5, 320 pounds, has the size and skill to be a good college defensive tackle, but he’d have to show the coaching staff that he’s grasped the mental aspect of the game and that he’s improved his conditioning to stand up to the rigors of ACC competition.
Miami has a pair of “aces in the hole” in redshirt senior Gerald Willis and the pending signing and enrolling of Plantation American Heritage four-star defensive tackle Nesta Silvera.
Assuming Silvera (6-foot-1, 308 pounds) follows through on his longstanding commitment and signs with the Canes on National Signing Day (Feb. 7), he could earn some playing time if he quickly taps into the potential that made him a 2018 U.S. Army All-American and First-Time All-Miami Sports Tribune performer as a senior in high school.
Willis didn’t play this past season, only practicing with the team since he took a leave of absence this past August. Willis (6-foot-2, 280 pounds) was highly touted coming out of high school but has had a difficult time shaking bad luck since his college career began at Florida prior to his transfer to Miami.
Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt made comments about how Willis has looked in practice this year.
“He was a terror on the scout team all year long,” Richt said. “We could hardly block the guy. I think he’ll do well. I think he’ll do very well. He’ll play a bunch.”
Michael Jackson Staying
While Norton and McIntosh decided to test the pro waters, Miami did receive confirmation that defensive back Michael Jackson will be returning for his senior year of eligibility.
Jackson, who tied for the team-lead in interceptions (4) this past season, announced his final decision via social media.
I’m back ✊🏾💯 pic.twitter.com/Khg2LKQ4GT
— mike jackson (@Greatness09_) January 5, 2018
It was speculated shortly after the Orange Bowl that Jackson might also turn pro, which would’ve hurt the Canes’ depth in the secondary, but his decision to stay in Coral Gable for one more year was just as welcomed as Jaquan Johnson announcing prior to the bowl game that he would be playing his senior season.
Jackson finished the year with 43 tackles, a sack, five pass breakups, and a fumble recovery to go along with his four interceptions.