Robert Nkemdiche on the right path
Only a sophomore, the defensive end is already drawing comparisons to Julius Peppers
Rush Propst knows a thing or two about football prospects.
The Colquitt County (Georgia) High School coach who has over 200 career victories has seen some of the best the Southeast has to offer over his 22 years of coaching in Georgia and Alabama. But it is Loganville (Ga.) Grayson sophomore defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who nearly cost Propst a trip to the state finals last December, who has Propst searching for adjectives.
"Robert is one of the best players I have ever seen. Period," Propst said. "Going into that [state semifinal] game, I watched all 13 Grayson games and knew that we would have to do something different because we would have to slow him down. We had to keep him off balance with different schemes, protections and snap counts. We had to slow him down and not let him control the game because he's the type of player that takes over games. I have coached 30 years and a lot of great players. I have coached Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Joe McKnight in all-star games. He's the best underclassmen I have ever seen."
Nkemdeche is a very promising prospect and has displayed that on film and recently reinforced that with his camp appearances. He looks the part with a thick, muscular build that is developed beyond his years. More importantly, he can be a disruptive and even dominating player. Along with size, he is an explosive and powerful player that can be a handful to block as he is active with his hands and moves well. The 2013 prospect is a defender with a lot of ability.
-- ESPN recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert
You get that a lot when talking about Nkemdiche. He's gone from a seventh-grader who never played the game, but still scored 42 TDs as a running back, to a 6-foot-4, 264-pound defensive end who holds verbal scholarship offers from Georgia, Georgia Tech, Alabama, Auburn, Ohio State, USC and many others after posting 18 sacks last fall as a sophomore.
"There is not a kid in the country that can block him one-on-one right now," said Lenny Gregory, Grayson's defensive line coach, who played nose guard at BYU from 1989-93. "I am not sure that there is a college in the country where he wouldn't start this fall. This kid is that good."
It took a couple of years before Nkemdiche started focusing on defense. But even then, he initially was a defensive back as a freshman. But after the coaches looked at his hands and feet and saw his athletic ability, they came to the quick conclusion that his future was on the defensive line.
"We felt like when he was a freshman he would one day be No. 1 player in country," Gregory said. "So we told Robert that this is what we are going to do and put together a plan. It became our mission. What we thought would happen has happened."
Well, kind of. The Grayson staff always knew if he worked hard, Nkemdiche would develop into an unstoppable defensive end. They just didn't realize that it would happen quite this fast. Heck, he's played the position for only two seasons now, so it's scary to think what he will be like as a senior in the fall of 2012.
"Who would ever have expected Robert could do the things he can do?" said Mickey Conn, Grayson's head coach. "That motor of his is unreal, the way he can turn it on. He's big, powerful, quick and fast. He's a freak. Robert is way ahead of schedule. I honestly thought he would be playing this way by the end of his junior season or during his senior year. I never thought he would be that dominant as a sophomore."
Conn, who played for Alabama in the early '90s, says Nkemdiche reminds him of former Crimson Tide All-American Eric Curry, while others have compared him to former North Carolina and current Chicago Bears star Julius Peppers. If anything, that's a credit to Gregory, who has worked closely with Nkemdiche.
"Coach Gregory has played a big role, especially last year," Nkemdiche said. "He makes me humble and doesn't give me a lot of affirmation. He doesn't look at me as a standout. He played at BYU and he had a chance to play in NFL. He's a real good dude that has taught me so much. He's a big influence as to who I am right now both on and off the field."
And that's important because of Nkemdiche's unique situation at home. His mom, Beverly, lives in Africa and is currently running for governor for one of their states in Nigeria. His father, Sunday, is a doctor who works long hours at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.
"Everything is hectic," Nkemdiche said. "My dad works overnight sometimes and Coach Conn and Coach Gregory really help me out. It's really hard because I don't get to see my mom that much. She comes to see us three, four times a year. But it's something I have gotten used to."
As much as he leans on his coaches, he also turns to his older brother, Denzel, who graduates from Grayson High School in the coming weeks and will play football at Gulf Coast Community College in Mississippi this fall.
"We have always been real close, especially with the family not together. With my mom in Nigeria and my dad working so much, Robert comes to me and asks me about everything," Denzel said. "I tell him the grades got me. I talk with him all the time about that. I tell him the grades are first. He's already getting lots of publicity already. I tell him to stay humble, stay focused and stay poised."
That's part of the focus for Nkemdiche now. Everyone at Grayson is trying to prepare the 16-year-old for the future.
"After last season, Robert won a few awards so I sat him down and wrote the word humble on a piece of paper," Gregory said. "I told him to put it on his wall and to look at that word every day when he wakes up. I told him to think about what it means. I will come up to him every day and ask him what our word is -- humble."
And it's worked. Yes, Nkemdiche knows he's a special player now, but he is also smart enough to know that doesn't guarantee anything for the future.
"Not trying to sound cocky, but I know I am pretty good and all, but I have things to learn and a lot ahead of me," Nkemdiche said. "I have a lot to learn, especially with technique. This is a big year ahead because I had a good year last season. Teams know who I am and I have to keep building on it. The attention doesn't throw me off. Like it or not, I will not change and it will not change me. You have good days and bad days and you have to work hard and stay humble."
It won't be easy, especially as more people learn about him, more stories are written about him and more schools recruit him. But as of now, he's enjoying the process. He unofficially visited Georgia, Georgia Tech, Alabama and Auburn, but says he's open to everyone. So far, he says, Oregon is the only team he'd like an offer from that has yet to offer.
"I'm happy that I am ahead of the process a little bit," Nkemdiche said. "When I go to college I think I will be ready to play as a freshman. I want to be comfortable around coaches, players and students. That will play a big role in my decision."
It almost seems too good to be true. Then again, Robert Nkemdiche is one of those special football players who don't come around all that often.
"Robert's got 'it,'" Jones said. "I don't know what 'it' is, but he has it."
Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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