- Mitch Sherman, College Football
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Picture the scene last week on a sun-bathed practice field at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports as Mickey Conn lingered near midfield, watching a special-teams drill two days before the Under Armour All-America Game.
Conn, the coach at Loganville (Ga.) Grayson High School, served as an assistant in this all-star game largely because of the presence of his 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end, Robert Nkemdiche, who sat on a bench 30 yards away, surrounded by other top college prospects.
Nkemdiche, considering Ole Miss and LSU, has stood alone atop the ESPN 150 since its initial release in April. After a strong showing at the UA Game and its practice sessions, he remains No. 1 in the final individual rankings, released Thursday.
Really, all eyes in recruiting began to focus on Nkemdiche before his junior year in 2011.
It's been some kind of an 18-month ride -- right, Coach Conn?
Conn raised his eyebrows and nodded in agreement as he pondered the next question.
How did you all handle it -- the unprecedented attention, so many college coaches who sought an edge in recruiting Nkemdiche, the constant demands, the ridiculous expectations?
"I don't know," Conn said. "I think all of us are still trying to figure that out."
The answer lies within Nkemdiche, who never lost his edge.
He did it with equal parts hunger, competitiveness and humility -- a mixture that helps Nkemdiche follow nicely in the footsteps of Jadeveon Clowney and Mario Edwards Jr., top-rated prospects of the past two years who refused to fall victim to the pressure and transitioned well to college.
"I wish I would have known what I should do to get that pressure off my back and how to do it," Nkemdiche said. "The toughest part of being No. 1 is being pulled by people every day. I am constantly hearing, 'Oh Robert do this' or 'Robert do that.'"
But Nkemdiche never let the pressure take over.
Prospects who failed to manage their situations litter the rankings of past years. Nkemdiche's story, though unfinished, appears on track to go the way of Clowney and Edwards.
Even if you didn't follow him as the nation's No. 1 recruit in 2011 out of Rock Hill (S.C.) South Pointe, you know Clowney by now. He was the SEC defensive player of the year as a sophomore at South Carolina, finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy balloting and set a school record with 13 sacks.
He is the best at what he does. It's always been that way. But some day, when Clowney encounters a bump in the road, he'll be ready, said Bobby Carroll, his former high school coach.
"I've never seen him go out and tell anybody he was the best player in the country," said Carroll, now the coach at York (S.C.) High School. "I think it's how he was raised. He is such a competitor and wrapped up in wanting to win that he doesn't think about the individual accolades or what they mean."
That's humility at work.
When pushed, Clowney increases his intensity. Carroll said he remembers a few instances at practice when he barked at Clowney to show more energy.
"Usually, about five minutes later, we were calling an ambulance," the coach said.
Edwards, a defensive end who went wire to wire last year atop the ESPN 150 out of Denton (Texas) Ryan, faced adversity as a freshman at Florida State.
He was too heavy. He was buried on the depth chart. He was looking at a redshirt year.
"He was down," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said, "but he listened. With his ability to listen and believe in what we're saying, he just kept getting better and better. He realized he had to work hard. It wasn't just, 'I'm Mario Edwards.' There were a bunch of good players around here."
Edwards' father, Mario Edwards Sr., calls it hunger.
"The main thing you've got to do is stay hungry," said the elder Edwards, a former Seminoles star and NFL cornerback who followed Mario Jr. to Tallahassee as the director of player development under Fisher. "You can't get complacent."
Edwards Jr. lost weight. He played a few snaps early and entered the starting lineup as injuries hit the FSU defense.
"Sometimes, about great ones, they say, 'I can't believe that guy failed,'" Fisher said. "Well, it's because they never faced adversity. And the first time they face it, they go in the tank. It's always somebody else's fault. They never learn how to gut things out.
"Mario was very unique in that he reached down deep and changed his personal habits. That's a tough thing to do, and because of it, he was able to be successful."
We know Nkemdiche has the athleticism of those who came before him, but can he match Edwards' hunger and Clowney's humility?
His journey over the past year offers an indication.
Nkemdiche has wavered in his college decision. He committed to Clemson in June, decommitted in November, toyed with Georgia, Alabama, Florida and others before declaring recently that he'd visit Ole Miss and LSU.
It may change again before Feb. 6. Clowney delayed his decision until nearly two weeks after signing day. Nkemdiche could get away with the same.
But in Florida last week, Nkemdiche displayed the intangibles that help define his Teflon exterior.
With all eyes trained on him, Nkemdiche fit well among the less-publicized players. When he went down with a groin injury in practice, he vowed to return quickly. And he did.
Minutes after Conn pondered the past year in astonishment, Nkemdiche caught some flak on the bench, courtesy of Ra'Shaad Samples, the Oklahoma State-committed receiver from Dallas Skyline. Aware of the attention Nkemdiche commanded, Samples suggested they ought to change the name of the UA Game.
Call it the Nkemdiche Special, Samples said.
Nkemdiche just smiled. No doubt his life often felt like reality TV. The past year -- and his wire-to-wire run -- makes it required viewing from this point forward.
Grayson High School defensive end Robert Nkemdiche finishes the year right where he started -- No. 1 in the ESPN 150.