Commentary

Robert Nkemdiche is the one

But pressure from being No. 1 prospect will be unlike anything he's ever faced

Originally Published: April 17, 2012
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN RecruitingNation

LOGANVILLE, Ga. -- Robert Nkemdiche smiles a lot.

He's got good reason.

His Grayson Rams won the Georgia Class AAAAA championship to cap a 15-0 season in Nkemdiche's junior year last fall and finished fourth nationally in the POWERADE FAB 50. He registered 18 sacks for a second straight season despite schemes obsessed with slowing the defensive end.

Nkemdiche (pronounced kim-DEE-chee) moonlighted as a locomotive at running back, scoring 17 touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comRobert Nkemdiche likes to smile and have fun, but the nation's top prospect will be tested by the recruiting process.
He can count lots of friends, supportive teammates and coaches, and every college football coach in the nation would hurry to the northeast side of metropolitan Atlanta if he thought his school stood a chance to sign Nkemdiche, the No. 1 prospect in the newly released ESPN 150.

"He's a rock star right now," Grayson coach Mickey Conn said.

Beneath the starry exterior, though, lurks a dark forecast. Nkemdiche is about to get hit like never before, and really, he's got no idea if he's ready for it. Nobody his age -- he turns 18 on Sept. 19 -- is prepared for the onslaught of scrutiny and adulation from coaches, fans and media set to engulf him over the next 9½ months.

It grows more intense every year, this hype meter for the super-elite among high school football stars. Things may have reached a new peak just 11 weeks ago, when receiver Dorial Green-Beckham of Springfield, Mo., the most coveted and well-known uncommitted prospect of 2012, picked Missouri at an event that felt more like Super Bowl media day than a signing-day news conference.

And then there's this: We're not dealing here with your run-of-the-mill No. 1-ranked player in Nkemdiche, who has packed 280 pounds this spring on his 6-foot-5 frame and can still cover 40 yards in 4.5 seconds, according to his coach.

He's the fifth defensive end to hold the top spot in the past six years, but Nkemdiche is a different kind of prospect, say many observers, than even Mario Edwards (2012), Jadeveon Clowney (2011), Jackson Jeffcoat (2010) and Da'Quan Bowers (2008).

Some in the Southeast put Nkemdiche in a class with Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson, legendary running backs from a generation past.

More realistic are the suggestions that Nkemdiche ranks as the most physically prepared prospect for the college game since the likes of linebacker D.J. Williams in 2000 and running back Adrian Peterson in 2004.

Both achieved stardom at the college and NFL levels -- Williams at Miami and with the Broncos; Peterson at Oklahoma and with the Vikings.

But it came only after difficulty and much stress at handling the process with which Nkemdiche is only beginning to grapple.

Nkemdiche said he thinks he's ready.

"The guys I'm around," he said, "they keep me humble. I do a pretty good job of keeping that stuff away and focusing on the things that are important."

As he'll discover, on this stage, the line between things that are important and those that serve as just another distraction are soon to become irreparably blurred.

'It's just a weird process'

Williams, the consensus top prospect nationally 13 years ago out of De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., emerged right as coverage of recruiting began to grow massively through the explosion of digital media.

He was a private kid, legendary De La Salle coach Bob Ladouceur said, quiet and unassuming, who didn't much like talking to a lot people. So when the media began to hammer Williams with requests, it took a toll.

"The kid was under a lot of pressure," Ladouceur said. "I wouldn't say he was angry, but he just didn't want to talk about it."

Before long, Williams' mother handled his recruiting calls from coaches. The athletic director at De La Salle took his media calls and later convinced Williams to hold a news conference a week after signing day to announce his choice of Miami over local favorite Cal, among others.

"It was way over the top, I thought," Ladouceur said.

Four years later, such a description fails to capture the crazed nature of Peterson's recruitment out of Palestine, Texas.

Jeff Harrell, Peterson's coach at Palestine High, enlisted a member of the school's booster club to keep photographers and reporters away from Peterson as he warmed up before games and to stay clear of him on the sidelines during competition.

Texas fans bought a full-page advertisement in the Palestine Herald-Press, encouraging Peterson to sign with the Longhorns. When Harrell and Peterson flew out of state for a banquet after the season, he was recognized by airline employees before showing identification.

The door to Harrell's office, on which he asked a school secretary to tape messages while he taught an athletic class, was often covered in an hour. College head coaches, five or six deep, would wait outside the same door to speak with the running back or his mother.

"Everybody in the world was after him," Harrell said, "but we just managed it the best we could."

Peterson waited until January to select Oklahoma, but he kept perspective amid the chaos, Harrell said.

Some uber-prospects simply can't match the hype, like Ron Powlus, who started 42 games at Notre Dame but fell well short of the Dan Marino and Joe Montana comparisons made as he graduated high school in 1993.

For others, the recruiting environment contributes to a sense of entitlement and problems later. Take Terrelle Pryor, mega-recruit quarterback from 2008 who left Ohio State at the center of a scandal last year that brought down Jim Tressel as coach and placed the program on probation.

Williams, the De La Salle linebacker, rarely interacted with the media even as a college and pro standout after his experience in high school.

"You've got adults dealing with kids," Ladouceur said. "It's stressful and can be intimidating. Coaches get mad, and kids hate that the most, the call to say they've decided to go someplace else. Kids are still kids. They don't want to disappoint people.

"It's just a weird process."

Preparation meets insanity

Want to know what else is weird? Robert Nkemdiche has 5,000 messages in his Facebook inbox.

Some are from friends, coaches and players from other high schools and colleges. But many come from fans, eager to lend advice or seek autographs.

Nkemdiche said he ignores most of it.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comDE Robert Nkemdiche is one of the most coveted prospects in the nation for 2013.

"I don't want to dedicate my life to doing things that other people want," he said.

Sounds like a mantra USC QB Matt Barkley could endorse.

"Enjoy the process," said Barkley, the No. 1-rated recruit in 2009. "Don't overthink it, and just go with your heart."

Barkley said he'd advise a top recruit to commit early. He did, but Nkemdiche may not.

After setting a May deadline, Nkemdiche said last week that he'd like to again visit his top schools -- Alabama, Clemson, LSU and Ole Miss -- before making a decision. As Conn, the Grayson coach, sees it, there's no rush to pledge, because if he commits early, it only adds new pressure.

Conn said he expects Nkemdiche to wait until late in the recruiting cycle to announce his choice. Maybe until he plays in the Under Armour All-America Game in January. Or later. Signing day next year is Feb. 6.

"We've been trying to prepare him for this since he walked in here in ninth grade," Conn said. "He's learning.

"If it's a coach he likes from a school he's interested in, Robert loves talking. He's a very social kid. And he loves reading all these articles that people are printing about him."

That's usually how it starts, said Southern Miss head coach Ellis Johnson, who recruited Clowney to South Carolina two years ago as the defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier.

"They hear the band play and everybody cheering, and they love it," Johnson said. "But after three to six months, it can become almost something unbearable. Even the ones who are good character guys can get run over."

Nkemdiche has studied tape of Cam Newton and how the quarterback answered questions while at Auburn.

Newton's predicament two years ago was more difficult than what Nkemdiche is likely to face as a premier recruit. Nkemdiche said he watched also how Reggie Bush dealt publicly with the loss of his Heisman Trophy in 2010.

Both displayed grace in difficult settings, Nkemdiche said. But they're grown men. He's 17.

"I've got a season ahead of me," he said, "another state championship to win."

Conn, sitting nearby, smiles. The coach has told Nkemdiche that, often, "saying less is better."

"He's got to put Grayson first," Conn said, "because that's where he is right now."

Keep sight of that -- more difficult than it sounds -- and Nkemdiche may just ace this test. Smiling all the way.