LOGANVILLE, Ga. — A dozen middle school age girls scream his name and converge on him like a swarm of locusts.
Robert Nkemdiche File
Robert Nkemdiche LAST NAME PRONOUNCED: kim-DEECH-eeSchool: Grayson High School, Loganville, Ga.Position: Defensive endClass: SeniorHeight: 6-6Weight: 280Speed: 4.5 in 40College: Verbally committed to Clemson
It’s Friday night in Loganville, Ga., and Grayson High School defensive end Robert Nkemdiche — the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit — is getting the full rock star treatment.
The Grayson Rams barely broke a sweat crushing Central Gwinnett, 52-0, and Nkemdiche is standing at midfield, surrounded by fans shouldering past each other to get a step closer to their hero. Armed with a pen, Nkemdiche signs anything that is thrust in front of him — scraps of paper, towels, even body parts — and patiently poses for every picture request.
At 6-6 and 280 pounds, Nkemdiche towers over everyone in his immediate vicinity. But instead of being intimidated by his hulking presence, the crowd of followers is drawn by this gentle giant. Nkemdiche has an easy smile that puts everyone at ease.
Two Gwinnett County sheriff deputies stand just out of earshot, scanning the crowd and making sure things don’t get too out of hand.
“The problem with Robert is that he can’t say ‘no’ to anyone, especially these kids,’ ” one deputy said. “He’d stay out here two hours if you let him. One night they had to turn off the lights in the stadium so everyone would leave. He’ll sign every autograph and take every picture. That’s just the kind of kid he is and always has been.”
Success and fame haven’t changed the third son of Sunday and Beverley Nkemdiche, who immigrated to the United States from Nigeria some two decades ago. He’s the same kid who still volunteers at local food drives and goes over to local middle schools to talk about things other than football.
“I don’t want people to think I’m cocky or anything special,” Nkemdiche said. “I know I’m kind of a role model, and I know if I met someone that I looked up to, I’d want them to take time out and talk with me.”
The problem for Robert is that he is special. He has the rare combination of size, speed and power that college recruiters have been drooling about for the last three years. Nkemdiche verbally committed to play at Clemson next fall.
“He’s the best athlete I’ve ever been around,” said Grayson High School coach Mickey Conn. “He’s 6-6 and he runs a 4.5 40. To have that size with that speed and that quickness and to be able to do the things he does athletically is amazing. He is so explosive and his hands are so big and so strong, when he grabs you it’s over.”
As a sophomore and junior, Nkemdiche recorded 36 sacks and another 30 tackles for loss. He also rushed for more than 500 yards and scored 17 touchdowns as a backup running back last year.
“Robert is huge and he’s very athletic,” said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. “He can play outside as a defensive end, or put him inside as a defensive tackle and he’s equally effective. The issue with Robert won’t be anything physical. It’s going to be how much does Robert want it? How much does he want to be the best player on the field? If he wants it, then the sky is the limit.”
Nkemdiche vs. Clowney
The comparisons between Nkemdiche and South Carolina All-America defensive end Jadeveon Clowney were almost inevitable.
They play the same position. They are about the same size — Clowney has a leaner build at 6-6 and 260 pounds — and have a similar skill set. They were both the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit coming out of high school and could end up playing on the same field next November during the South Carolina-Clemson game.
Nkemdiche is fan of Clowney’s and is just flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence with the future first round NFL draft pick.
“He’s a great player, a great player,” Nkemdiche said. “I love to watch him play and get after people. He’s so quick off the ball. He’s fast, he’s a great athlete. We’re similar in some ways, but I think we have different styles.”
Where Clowney is more of a sack specialist, using his speed and quickness to wreak havoc in the backfield, Nkemdiche sees himself as more of a power rusher.
“He’s more of a pass rusher, an outside linebacker type,” Nkemdiche said. “I think I’m more like Reggie White, more of a power guy, but I can use my speed and quickness when I need to.”
Farrell predicts that Nkemdiche will be a star at the college level, but he doesn’t think he’ll have the impact that Clowney has had for the Gamecocks.
“Jadeveon is a once-in-a-decade kind of defensive lineman,” Farrell said. “This isn’t to take anything away from Robert, because he’s an excellent prospect that will play in the NFL. Robert is thicker than Jadeveon, but he’s not as explosive off the ball and his top-end speed isn’t as high. In the decade or so that I’ve been evaluating high school players, Jadeveon Clowney is the best defensive line prospect I’ve ever seen.”
Nkemdiche shocked many in the recruiting world when he verbally committed to Clemson during the Tigers’ football camp in June.
He picked Clemson — a 100-mile drive from Loganville on Interstate 85 — over Alabama, LSU and Mississippi, where many recruiting analysts predicted and still believe he could end up.
“It wasn’t always football, football, football with them,” Nkemdiche said of Clemson’s coaches. “They talked about other things, life things and not just football. I felt like they were interested in me as a person and not just as a football player.”
Nkemdiche said he’s “100 percent” committed to Clemson, but in the last few weeks cracks have begun to emerge in his decision.
His mother, Beverley, who is a state legislator in Nigeria, told ESPN that her son’s decision about Clemson was not final.
“He’s just a teenager and people are forgetting that,” she told ESPN. “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.”
Beverley has publicly expressed her desire to have Robert play alongside his older brother Denzel — a budding star at Mississippi.
“My mom wants me to go to Ole Miss, and that’s been tugging at my heart,” Robert said. “I’m not going to lie, she does have say so in my college choice, but I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. This has been super hard on me.”
Denzel has made no secret about his desire to play with his brother.
“Of course I want him to come to Ole Miss,” Denzel said. “Who wouldn’t want to play on the same team with their brother. But in the end, Robert has to make that decision and do what’s best for him.”
His mother is scheduled to return to the U.S. next week and attend his final regular season home game on Nov. 9.
His father, Sunday, is a doctor in Lithonia, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. He has avoided the media spotlight and has not expressed a preference publicly on his son’s future.
Pulling Nkemdiche toward Clemson are Grayson teammates Wayne Gallman, a linebacker, and defensive back David Kamara, a close friend of Nkemdiche. Both players have verbally committed to the Tigers. Former Grayson quarterback Nick Schuessler, whom Nkemdiche lived with at times over the past two seasons, is a walk-on at Clemson.
“We want to go up to Clemson and do for their defense what they’ve got going on offense right now,” Nkemdiche said.
Farrell still believes that LSU and Alabama are in play for Nkemdiche’s services. Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was on the sidelines during the game against Central Gwinnett.
“Mississippi can take Robert and all of his teammates just like Clemson,” Farrell said. “Alabama and LSU don’t have that kind of room, so if Robert goes to either one of those schools, he is going to have to make a decision for himself.”
But don’t count out the Tigers or head coach Dabo Swinney, Farrell said. This is the same coaching staff that lured C.J. Spiller, Sammy Watkins and Anthony Steward away from Florida to Clemson.
“No one gave Clemson much of a chance with those guys, so I think it would be way too early to count out Dabo Swinney,” Farrell said. “My guess is that there will plenty of drama between now and signing day.”
National signing day is Feb. 6.
Though committed to Clemson, Nkemdiche said he wants to take visits to Oregon and Southern California.
“I just want to see what’s out there,” Nkemdiche said.
Conn, who played at Alabama with Swinney, said he’s not leading Nkemdiche to any school.
“As far as I’m concerned, I want Robert to go where Robert wants to go,” Conn said. “He’s getting pulled in so many different directions, but he needs to go where his heart tells him to go.”
August 25, 2012 - Atlanta, Ga: Grayson defensive end/running back Robert Nkemdiche talks with a teammate on the sideline during their 31-12 win over McEachern in the Corky Kell Classic in the Georgia Dome Saturday afternoon in Atlanta, Ga., August 25, 2012. Nkemdiche is one of the top recruits in the nation. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM×
October 5, 2012 Loganville, GA: FOR FILE Grayson defensive end Robert Nkemdiche against Central Gwinnett Friday October 5, 2012. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM×