Photo: Andrew McMurtrie Robert Nkemdiche is the biggest player on Grayson's team. The 6 foot 5 inch, 275 pound junior has always been a force on defense and now he is a real threat running the ball.
LOGANVILLE -- Just shaking Robert Nkemdiche's hand can be an unpleasant experience. And he's not trying to do any more than a causal greeting.
His towering 6-foot-5 frame and sleek 270 pounds, intimidates enough, but when he wraps just one of his powerful hands around yours, lightly squeezing, and the force crumples all the metacarpals together his true potential becomes clear. This is all done with a big smile.
As he talks about his football season, sacks and touchdowns, it's hard not to wander back to that initial greeting. If that smile were a snarl. If those hands were prelude to the force behind them. If he wanted to put you on the ground or push you out of the way. That handshake becomes more foreboding.
Nkemdiche doesn't surprise teams facing Grayson. A top-ranked college prospect even as a junior, all eyes were on the defensive end before the season started. No one understood this more than Nkemdiche.
"I didn't want to feel like I let up. It wasn't a scared thing, I was just kind of nervous," Nkemdiche said of his preseason thoughts. "As much as I am like, 'Dang, they are going to triple team me?' I am like, 'They have to stop me, too.' I had to work a lot harder."
He did. Even with consistently facing two blockers and often three, he managed a county-high 11 sacks in the regular season. He can best describe the challenge of three blockers.
"It's hard. How couldn't it be?" Nkemdiche said. "It's the law of physics, if you put 500 pounds against 200 pounds it's going to be hard."
His preseason fear wasn't for the challenge, rather the expectations. Nkemdiche did not want to leave Grayson surrounded by questions of his effort or dedication to his high school team. He didn't want teammates to look at him with disappointment or worse.
"Everybody around me helped me stay grounded," he said. "I just have stayed committed to the team and that really helps me. I could have said, 'I have it made already,' and just give up on my team, but they help me and keep me grounded and that has helped me make the plays that I am."
And as the season turned short and the playoffs began, the plays he makes are more and more. On both sides of the ball.
Nkemdiche always played running back. He and his brother, Denzel, a redshirt at Ole Miss, filled the Rams' backfield late last season. It's just hard to keep a player of his size and speed off the field.
"Robert is one of the best athletes out there," Grayson head coach Mickey Conn said.
As the games become more important, Nkemdiche's involvement only increases. He went from less than a handful of carries most games to nearly 10 in just three quarters last week. He used to enter with his own offensive package of plays and every person watching and playing knew the ball was coming to him. Now, he also just plays fullback. He blocks and is used as a decoy.
"He knows what to do if we put him in there," Conn said. "He's a great athlete. We try to rest him and keep him fresh on defense, but if our offense needs to move the ball ..."
Thinking of that handshake and trying extrapolate that unfocused force to 4.6-second 40-yard speed bolstered by 270 pounds of mass will make you quiver. And it's made defenders do the same. Nkemdiche laughs when he remembers one safety opting to hop to the side rather than greet his downhill force.
"It turns me up. It gives me momentum," Nkemdiche said. "When I am running the ball and I am dragging them and crushing them and I have O-lineman there and they do a great job opening it up for me."
Rather then slow him on defense, running the ball appears to strengthen Nkemdiche. When he sacked Collins Hill's quarterback for a safety last week in the third quarter it came a series after he carried the ball twice for 13 yards, his final two carries of the game.
"I think it got him excited," Conn said. "I think it made it more fun for him."
There's a streak of gold running through Nkemdiche's hair. Not through the middle, but off to left side. It's Grayson gold. He gladly lists the names of his teammates, running through both the offense and defense. He smiles. Then that smile is gone. He remembers the end of last season. A loss, at home in the playoffs. You imagine it's the look he has on the field, chasing down a quarterback or running through defenders. Those ole' tackles and phantom blocks and triple teams and 11 sacks suddenly make sense.
"I like the toss," he said, naming his favorite run. "When I am coming down hill, not a lot of people want to get in my way."