What's the rush?

The nation's top recruit committed to Clemson in June. Can the Tigers hang on?

Originally Published: September 4, 2012
By Zach Schonbrun | ESPN The Magazine

Robert NkemdicheJohn Loomis for ESPN The MagazineRobert Nkemdiche is the first No. 1 recruit to come out of Georgia since Hines Ward.

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THE DOWNHILL ROAD to the Grayson High football stadium is flecked with granules of white, so on a searing day in early July, with the sun directly overhead, the smooth concrete path sparkles like fresh snow. There are yellow G's painted on it every 20 yards, their circular shape familiar to any football fan in the state of Georgia. The G's stare up at Robert Nkemdiche, the nation's No. 1 prospect, as he drives this route almost every day.

His 2007 red Ford Explorer, rap music thumping, stirs the dust when he pulls up. As he opens the door, a purple LSU Tigers lanyard is visible. Nkemdiche (kim-dee-chee) nods at it but quickly, instinctively, dismisses any notion that it is more than a colorful trinket to hold a spare set of keys. "I just liked it," he says of the souvenir he picked up on a trip to Baton Rouge. "But I leave it in the car so no one can see it."

If anyone did, the lanyard would set off a chain of speculative rumors across the recruiting nation, because Nkemdiche committed to the Clemson Tigers in June, an unexpected announcement that sent tremors felt by programs from Athens to LA. To say the senior is sought after is an understatement. He is 6'5", 281 pounds and runs a 4.56 40; last season, he had 18 sacks as an end, rumbled for 17 scores as a running back and led the Grayson Rams to the Class 5A state title. After defeating Florida powerhouse Miami Central, 35-6, on Aug. 31, they remain No. 1 in the country, according to the ESPN 25 Power Rankings.

"You can argue that he's the state's best prospect since Herschel Walker," says Tom Luginbill, ESPN's national recruiting director. "At this stage, he has a more explosive first step than Da'Quan Bowers, Clemson's No. 1 overall recruit in 2008. He became ACC Defensive Player of the Year."

But Bowers was from South Carolina, an in-state kid for Clemson. Here, in the dried-out heart of SEC country, the Tigers could wind up pulling off one of the greatest recruiting coups in recent memory. Still, with five months left until signing day on Feb. 6, when prospects officially ink their binding scholarship agreements, ample time -- and opportunity -- remains for Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles to convince Nkemdiche otherwise. Or for Nkemdiche to second-guess a decision he made on an unofficial visit with two teammates. Then, of course, there's the pressure from hordes of reporters and fans who will scrutinize every purple lanyard.

There is no avoiding the microscope for Nkemdiche. Grayson High is located in Loganville, just 40 miles west of the University of Georgia, the school that has made the circular G one of the most recognizable logos in college football. Cafeteria workers urge Nkemdiche to be a Bulldog; red-and-white UGa flags hang from front porches in his neighborhood. Nkemdiche received a handwritten note from Saban, which he keeps in his bedroom. His brother, Denzel, is a redshirt freshman linebacker at Ole Miss. And the kicker: Grayson coach Mickey Conn and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney roomed together at Bama as players in the early 1990s.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
John Loomis for ESPN The MagazineNkemdiche had 18 sacks as an end and rushed for 17 scores as a running back last season.

As the 17-year-old sits on the Grayson football field, gazing out at yet another G emblazoned on the 50-yard line, he speaks openly about his decision to side with Swinney and his disillusionment with the tireless process that is far from over. "It's people here and there, always just kind of tugging," he says. "Everybody saying where they want you to go, everybody bashing me about Clemson. Everything I do is on a monitor."

His introduction to 24-hour surveillance came during a breakout sophomore season, when Nkemdiche transformed from a seldom-used freshman into a 19-sack force. He changed his cellphone number as a result of the ensuing recruiting frenzy. Then this summer, following his commitment, Nkemdiche was nationally scrutinized when he propositioned Clemson in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to offer a scholarship to Grayson safety Ryan Carter; two other teammates, running back Wayne Gallman and cornerback David Kamara, are also committed to the Tigers. (Nkemdiche says it was a wish, not an ultimatum, and Carter has yet to receive an offer.) In the latest installment of the Nkemdiche saga, he visited his brother in late July and donned a Rebels jersey in a tweeted pic that incited the blogosphere.

Talking to Nkemdiche, it is difficult to tell whether he's truly naive to the fact that his actions speak louder than a normal teenager's. He seems to be refreshingly honest about his football-centric aspirations and lacks the hangers-on attached to most blue-chip prospects. There is no handler to coddle and protect him, no overbearing uncle or father who wants a share of the spotlight. Nkemdiche says he has never drank or smoked, prays before meals and likes to train alone. That maturity and independence is impressive, though not entirely surprising given his upbringing.

Robert is the third son of Nigerian parents Sunday and Beverly. The family lived in Lithonia, outside of Atlanta, where Sunday works as a doctor. The family moved to Lawrenceville when Robert was in middle school to be closer to the Grayson school system, Beverly says. Before Robert started high school, his mother returned to Nigeria to enter politics and was elected a state legislator. Robert communicates with her weekly by phone or through Facebook. But Sunday's work schedule made it difficult to ensure that Robert could get to and from school and practices. So Grayson assistant coach Lenny Gregory became his legal guardian, housing Robert during the school year. As a junior, Nkemdiche also spent time with Conn and with the family of former teammate Nick Schuessler, a quarterback who recently transferred to Clemson from Mississippi State.

Reached by phone in Nigeria, Beverly says she and Sunday bought the Explorer so Robert could live at home his senior year. (According to Gregory, Robert still primarily resides with him.) Beverly was alarmed when she returned this summer to learn how serious Robert's commitment to Clemson was being reported.

"His decision is not final," she says. "He's just a teenager, and people are forgetting that. We had never discussed Clemson, and I am unhappy with Clemson. I'm not there, so I don't know for certain, but I feel like Robert was pressured into this decision." She'll return later this fall to escort Robert onto the field for senior night.

But no matter how unguided Nkemdiche's decision may or may not have been, he is frank about his ultimate goal: the NFL. "Anywhere I go," he says, "if I just play football, in a few years I'm going to have $50 million."

The league is certainly a selling point for Clemson, which is one of only three programs (with UNC and LSU) to have seven defensive linemen selected since 2008. "Don't buy the lie that you can't accomplish all your goals and dreams if you don't play in the SEC," Swinney says.

Of course, Nkemdiche will hear plenty of lines like that between now and Feb. 6.

"I'm going to Clemson," he says. "I want to make an impact and in three years go to the NFL. That's what I'm going to do. You can put that in bold too."

We'll just wait until he signs his name in ink.

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