Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Grayson's Robert Nkemdiche
Gwinnett Daily Post All-County Football
Grayson head football coach Mickey Conn can rattle off a long list of things that make Robert Nkemdiche such a good player.
He starts with his attitude and work ethic, mentions his strength and determination as a player and finishes with some intangibles that separate him from other players.
The biggest thing that stands out to Conn is Nkemdiche's humility.
For a player who has been tabbed by recruiting services as the No. 1 college prospect in the nation, Nkemdiche has kept a level head.
The Daily Post's Defensive Player of the Year avoided all of the attention this season, helping Grayson to its first Class AAAAA state championship.
"We were really worried with all the attention he's getting. Would he take plays off? Will he still be interested in the team? You've got all these people pulling on him from every end," Conn said. "With this recruiting stuff, he didn't pay any attention to it."
Nkemdiche has college scholarship offers from every major program in football. During the season when coaches tried to set up visits, he respectfully declined until the offseason. He was solely focused on football.
"It doesn't matter about recruiting now," Nkemdiche said. "I just shut down everything that wasn't relevant to winning a state championship."
Nkemdiche emerged as one of the state's top players last year, leading Grayson to the state semifinals. He continued that success this season, leading Gwinnett County in sacks with 18. He also made 41 tackles, 18 tackles for losses and 17 quarterback pressures from his defensive end and noseguard positions.
"We could put him anywhere," Conn said. "When you've got a guy that good, you don't want him thinking, you want him playing fast."
As the season wore on, Nkemdiche had more of a presence on offense as a running back. The 6-foot-5 , 273-pounder was almost impossible to stop on short-yardage plays.
"He was so explosive on our short-yardage stuff, that was huge," Conn said. "If we had third-and-one or fourth-and-one, we felt like we could get a first down. That was big."
But Nkemdiche wasn't just a short-yardage back, he made several runs of 10 yards or more throughout the season. Including one where he crossed the field, regained his balance, and dove in the end zone against Dacula.
He rushed for 528 yards this season and 17 touchdowns, which was tied for the most in the county.
"I just love doing good things for my team," Nkemdiche said. "Offensively and defensively, you put me in and I'm going to do my best to make it happen."
Nkemdiche is the second junior to be named Daily Post Defensive Player of the Year, joining Brookwood's Rennie Curran. The former UGA standout was later drafted by the Tennessee Titans.
That's pretty good company, but Nkemdiche has already been compared to some elite players.
"When I first got here, (Cameron) Heyward was a junior or senior and he looks better than him," North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said prior to last year's playoff game with Grayson. "He's much more active and explosive."
Heyward won a national title at Ohio State and was a first-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers this year.
Colquitt County head coach Rush Propst thinks Nkemdiche can play in the NFL next year and has compared him to one of the league's top defensive linemen.
"He looks like Julius Peppers. He looks like a first-round draft choice in high school," Propst said before their quarterfinal game. "He's a great football player, one of the best I've ever seen."
Nkemdiche's future may be in the NFL one day, but he still has another year of high school.
And he still has that whole pesky college recruiting thing to deal with. In no particular order he lists Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia, Oregon and Southern California as his favorite schools.
He doesn't have a timetable for making a college decision, but will probably sit down with his head coach after basketball season to narrow down the process.
He also wants to get better and faster, if that's even possible to imagine. Nkemdiche wants to lower his 4.73-second 40-yard dash time to 4.4 seconds.
His goal was to always win a state championship. With that accomplished this year, he wants another one.
"I want to do it one more time before I graduate," Nkemdiche said. "I just have to keep working. I don't want to ever act like I've got it all. I just want to keep working and get better."