Prep prospect draws star comparisons
GRAYSON, Ga. -- One college football recruiter called Grayson High School defensive end Robert Nkemdiche the Southeast's best prospect since the early 1980s, when schools from across the country were lining up to sign two running backs who, more than three decades later, are still affectionately known by only their first names -- Herschel and Bo.
Another college recruiter described Nkemdiche as a younger version of Reggie White, the late NFL Hall of Famer, because of his rare combination of size, speed and strength, as well as his ability to rush quarterbacks from the edge or bull-rush guards and centers from the trenches.
Grayson High School coach Mickey Conn said the college recruiter who compared Nkemdiche to Auburn's Bo Jackson and Georgia's Herschel Walker might have been a little starry-eyed.
Conn said it would probably be more appropriate to compare Nkemdiche to NFL Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas or maybe current Chicago Bears star Julius Peppers.
Nkemdiche (pronounced Kim-dee-chee) isn't afraid of the lofty comparisons -- even if he's only 17 and still seven months away from the start of his senior season of high school football.
"It's crazy," Nkemdiche said. "It's great they compare me to people like that. I want to back it up and make everybody right."
Over the past two weeks, when college football teams were putting the finishing touches on their 2012 recruiting classes, many head coaches were traveling to Grayson, which is about 30 miles northeast of Atlanta, to at least catch a glimpse of the country's No. 1 prospect for the Class of 2013.
Even though NCAA rules permit only minimal contact with high school juniors, Alabama's Nick Saban, Georgia's Mark Richt, Florida's Will Muschamp, Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Tennessee's Derek Dooley each visited Grayson High School during the past two weeks. Assistant coaches from Florida State, Miami, Michigan State, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Vanderbilt -- and assistants from at least a dozen other schools -- also stopped by to see the country's most highly sought high school football player.
"The only thing that concerns me with all the recruiters and media and everyone always wanting his time are the distractions," said Conn, who played for Alabama and was a member of the 1992 national championship team. "I've never seen a player as good as him in high school. The comparisons don't bother me. He knows college is going to be a different animal.
"The great thing is Robert has taken it all in stride and handled it with a lot of humility. His teammates have handled it well, too. There's no friction in the locker room and he doesn't try to separate himself from everyone else. He's taken his best friends on trips with him."
Nkemdiche is handling the spotlight with maturity and modesty because he had to grow up faster than most of his classmates. He was born in Atlanta, the son of Nigerian immigrants. Nkemdiche's mother, Beverly, returned to her native country three years ago to become a politician. She was elected a state congresswoman last spring, representing a part of southeast Nigeria.
Nkemdiche said he doesn't worry much about his mother's safety, even though Nigeria has been engulfed by political and religious unrest in recent months. Nigeria is roughly split between the predominantly Muslim north and Christian south. More than 14,000 people were killed in ethnic and religious clashes in the West African nation between 1999 and 2009, according to the International Crisis Group, and recent bombings left more than 300 people dead.
"It's pretty wild," Nkemdiche said. "I feel like she's being protected and she's in God's hands, so I'm not concerned."
Nkemdiche's father, Sunday, lives in Atlanta, but his work schedule made it difficult for Robert to keep attending school at Grayson High. When Beverly Nkemdiche returned to Nigeria, Grayson High assistant coach Lenny Gregory became Nkemdiche's legal guardian. Nkemdiche lived with Gregory for two years, and then lived one semester with Conn's family. Nkemdiche has lived with Rams quarterback Nick Schuessler's family for much of the past year. Schuessler signed a national letter of intent on Wednesday to play football at Mississippi State this coming season.
"It's been good," Nkemdiche said. "Nick and I have a very, very close bond. We're like brothers. I love his family and they love me."
Nkemdiche's older brother, Denzel, was a freshman defensive back at Ole Miss this past season. Beverly Nkemdiche visited her sons in Atlanta for two weeks over the Christmas holiday, and she and Robert communicate almost daily via text messages and Facebook.
Conn got his first glimpse of Nkemdiche when he returned a kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown while playing on an eighth-grade team. As a freshman at Grayson High, Nkemdiche played about 10 snaps a game. He had 19 sacks as a sophomore, helping lead the Rams to a 10-4 record and the Class 5A state semifinals.
This past season, Nkemdiche had 18 sacks and ran for 17 touchdowns, guiding Grayson High to a 15-0 record and Class 5A state championship. In the Rams' 24-0 victory over Walton High School in the state championship game in the Georgia Dome, Nkemdiche ran for 85 yards and one touchdown. On one play on defense, he lifted a blocker with his right arm and tore the jersey off running back Tyren Jones -- another highly regarded prospect -- with his left.
"He's the best defensive line prospect in high school I've ever seen and it's not even close," said Central Gwinnett High School coach Todd Wofford, whose team lost to Grayson 22-0 last season. "He has it all. We held him to two sacks, and I thought we did a great job on him. We put two men on him and chipped him with a running back all night. When he decides he wants to get back there, he's going to get back there. It doesn't matter how many guys you put on him."
Nkemdiche certainly looks the part of being the country's top high school prospect. He's 6-foot-5 and weighs 270 pounds. He bench presses 350 pounds, power cleans 335 and squats more than 500. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds, a time usually reserved for running backs and other skill players.
"It's unbelievable how compacted he is," North Gwinnett High School coach Bob Sphire said. "Obviously, he must be all muscle. I've had some of the older recruiters come through here and tell me he's Lawrence Taylor. He's really good. He's legit. He's extremely explosive and he's a tough football player. He ain't no pretty boy. He'll get down and dirty."
Nkemdiche said he doesn't have a favorite college at this point. He said he's most interested in Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Oregon. He attended games at Alabama and Georgia this past season and attended the Crimson Tide's Junior Day this past weekend.
"When I look at schools, I start with the coaches and how they discipline their kids," Nkemdiche said. "Then I go to the players and how I interact with them, and then I look at how early I can play."
Nkemdiche will sign with the college of his choice on Feb. 6, 2013. It figures to be one heck of a recruiting battle.
"When it started, I was quite a bit surprised," Nkemdiche said. "As it got more and more, I just blocked it out. I didn't let it get to me and just paid attention to my team and season. It's good I'm ranked up there. It's going to be crazy."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.