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LOGANVILLE, Ga. -- Whenever his career ends, whether it's in college or the NFL, ESPN 150 No. 1 recruit Robert Nkemdiche (Loganville, Ga./Grayson) said he wants to be known as one thing.
"Ambitious," Nkemdiche said.
On Wednesday, in front of his father, teammates and coaches, Nkemdiche was presented with his Under Armour All-America Game jersey on the first stop of the American Family Insurance Selection Tour for the 2013 Under Armour All-America Game, and ambition was written all over his face.
His journey began when he was 9 years old. Nkemdiche would play football in his neighborhood with his friends. Everyone always wanted him on their team.
"I was not big or anything," Nkemdiche said. "I was just a slanky kid who used to just pick balls off and make catches over guys."
Nkemdiche first played organized football in seventh grade, scoring more than 40 touchdowns at running back. Grayson defensive line coach Lenny Gregory, who played guard at BYU from 1989 to '93, had other plans for him in high school.
"I originally wanted to play running back or safety, but when I got to Grayson, they said no way," Nkemdiche said. "They said, 'You are not going to make it as a 6-foot-5 running back.' And they showed me Taylor Mays, who was 6-3, 230 pounds, and said I did not have the same legs he did. They told me to hit the weight room and put my hand in the dirt and go."
Gregory saw the potential in Nkemdiche, who was already pushing 6-4 and 240 pounds as a ninth-grader.
"I saw him in eighth grade when his older brother introduced him, and the first thing I thought was that this was a big-time defensive lineman," Gregory said. "He was a good running back at the time, but I knew he could be an all-world defensive lineman. I told him if he wanted to be the No. 1 prospect in the country, he was going to have to put his hand in the dirt on the defensive line."
It was a stance that almost resulted in Nkemdiche giving up the sport.
"I did not like it and I did not want to do it," Nkemdiche said. "I promised myself I would never be a lineman. I wanted to be a skill player. Many times I thought about walking away from it. But then I started making plays so I told myself I might as well stick with it."
|Robert Nkemdiche is the first Under Armour All-American to get his game jersey.|
As a sophomore and junior, Nkemdiche stuck to quarterbacks, making 18 sacks in consecutive seasons and cementing his status as the No. 1 prospect in the country for the 2013 class. Nkemdiche quickly began hearing comparisons to Da'Quan Bowers, another defensive end and No. 1 prospect. He didn't know it then, but he would soon decide to follow in Bowers' footsteps by committing to play at Clemson after his UA Game experience.
In its sixth year, the Under Armour All-America Game highlights 90 of the country's top senior high school football players. The 2013 edition is set to take place at 5 p.m. ET Jan. 4 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., and will be televised on ESPN. In addition to Bowers, other former game participants include Jadeveon Clowney, Julio Jones and A.J. Green.
"It is a great feeling because many great guys have played in this game," Nkemdiche said. "I am happy to even be on the same path as them. It is crazy. God gave me a special ability, and he gave the same ability to Da'Quan Bowers. All I can do is perform to the best of my ability."
While many schools used former standouts to sell the five-star prospect on making a similar impact at their programs, Nkemdiche said that was not the case with Clemson, where he committed in June.
"Clemson talked about Bowers probably the third time I went there, but I liked Clemson before that," Nkemdiche said. "Dabo Swinney and his coaches did not use things like that, and that is what I liked about them. He is a really up-front guy that just wants to take care of you. What separates Clemson from the other schools is the way they treat their players. They are all one big family, with everyone working in sync together. I have my friends coming with me, too, so I could not ask for anything better.
"He did bring it up eventually, of course, because me and Bowers are a lot alike. He was a defensive end that was the No. 1 overall prospect, and he went to Clemson as well."
Bowers started six games as a freshman in 2008 and made 58 tackles, the most of any Clemson defensive lineman that season. Sunday Nkemdiche, Robert's father, said he was not surprised at all when his son chose the Tigers.
"It is a good school and it is close to home," Sunday said. "Looking at the system at Clemson, they play a 4-3 defense. Obviously he wants to play defensive end at the next level, so they fit into what he is looking to do. Looking at their depth chart, he is going to start as a freshman. I think he made a wise decision."
Denzel Nkemdiche, Robert's older brother, is a true freshman at Ole Miss. Playing a hybrid linebacker/safety position, Denzel had a team-high eight tackles, including three for loss, against Central Arkansas this past weekend. Their father is not worried about his sons attending different schools.
"As long as they are happy, I am kind of indifferent," Sunday said. "I support them wherever they go 100 percent. I will just have to split my time up at Clemson and Ole Miss."
Grayson unleashed 6-foot-4, 275-pound Robert at running back as a junior, and he responded with 17 touchdowns while helping the Rams win their first state championship. In two games as a senior, Nkemdiche already has five touchdowns for Grayson, the nation's No. 1 team in the ESPN 25 Power Rankings.
One coach saw the potential in him to continue that trend at the next level.
"Dabo Swinney was the first one to mention using me at running back," Nkemdiche said. "He said, 'If we need 2 or 3 yards in a big game, why not put you in there?' Hopefully I get in there and they let me run a little bit next year."