Senior College Football Columnist

Kicking off Signing Day, Nkemdiche's decision could shift SEC power

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LOGANVILLE, Ga. -- Robert Nkemdiche shakes hands the way Godzilla makes his way through downtown Tokyo. That is to say, with malevolence.

The difference is the movie star land lizard knows exactly what he's doing. The nation's No. 1 recruit doesn't quite realize the full range of his awesome might. The extended hand of the friend, teammate and prospect they call Big Rob reaches up past the wrist to the forearm. The ow-inducing pain crushes the radial collateral ligament and thereabouts.

"Robert's ended some careers, put it that way," one of Grayson High School's assistants says from across the room. "There's a few quarterbacks out there that don't play no more."

Forget sacks, there's one columnist who isn't going to be able to hold a pen for a while.

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Forgive him, college football, in advance. Shortly after Nkemdiche introduces himself to teammates at LSU, Ole Miss or wherever he is headed this week, there will be more than handshakes treated with Aleve. The scores of schools that threw themselves at the 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive lineman would bet on it.

Another National Signing Day is upon us with the usual suspects -- and craziness. Alabama could win its second national championship in a month if its No. 1 recruiting ranking holds.

A year ago, the chase for No. 1 was beginning to wear out former Missouri assistant David Yost. He was busy lining up Dorial Green-Beckham's favorite food (fried sushi) during a visit. Head coach Gary Pinkel already had made a rather conspicuous visit to the high school of the nation's 2012 No. 1 recruit -- via helicopter.

It all worked. DGB went to Mizzou. Yost, though, quit after the season, exhausted from wearing four hats -- recruiting coordinator, assistant head coach, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.

In 2008, No. 1 recruit Terrelle Pryor compelled national media to descend upon Jeannette, Penn. for his announcement, only to learn he was still considering Oregon and Penn State. It would not be Pryor's last questionable decision.

Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze is signing one of the most unexpected classes in years. Nkemdiche figures to be a part of it. But LSU has made a late push and Clemson had two coaches in the Grayson High School football office last week when a certain reporter's hand was crushed.

"Like they say: One more chance," Tigers' co-defensive coordinator Marion Hobby said that day. "An opportunity lost is never regained."

When non-traditional recruiting powers like the Rebels teams shoot up the recruiting rankings, bad NCAA juju can follow. No one is accusing anyone of anything. In fact, Freeze had this bold tweet last Friday: "If you have facts about a violation, email compliance@olemiss.edu. If not, please don't slander the young men."

Still, Nkemdiche now knows what it is to be a lightning rod. His leveraging of a scholarship for a teammate at Clemson became a national discussion. When he ultimately decommited from the Tigers, certain recruitniks and fans freaked.

"I had no idea it was going to be like that at all," said a flustered Nkemdiche.

Maybe because there are a lot of coaches like Kansas' Charlie Weis who said, "A commitment is like a marriage. When you're married, there's a lot of good-looking girls that come by but there's only one wife."

Married? Let the kid get through the senior prom first.

There are many reasons the SEC has won seven titles in row. Defense may be the biggest, particularly defensive line. Ask any coach from Division III to Sunday in the Superdome, it is the hardest commodity to find and develop. There's a reason four of the current top 10 prospects nationally per 247Sports are defensive linemen. Or that 31 percent of the top 16 players taken in the NFL Draft since 2010 are D-linemen.

They are the game-changers. They're also hard as hell to find. Five of the past seven defensive MVPs of the BCS title game have been defensive linemen. Five in a row from 2006-2010.

You want to know why this Georgia native is most likely staying in the SEC? The best D-linemen are raised and trained here. They also tend to stay "home," in the conference, in the region where they are appreciated -- and decorated -- the most.

"They're the start of the defense, the first line of defense," said Nkemdiche, who lives for the kind of mugging South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney put on Michigan's Vincent Smith in last month's Outback Bowl.

"Those," Big Rob said, "are trophy hits."

A mantle is being cleaned somewhere for this son of Nigerian parents. Big Rob has never been to the country. His mother, Beverly, lives there working as a government official. She has seen Big Rob play three times in person. Dad, Sunday, oversees the family from this pleasant upper-middle class suburb outside of Atlanta.

Nkemdiche is a local legend. Grayson strength coach Richard Gillespie speaks in hushed tones of the player's 415-pound bench press. Grayson head coach Mickey Conn remembers seeing Nkemdiche in eighth grade "twice as big as everybody." By ninth grade Big Rob was returning kickoffs at 6-3, 230. On Thursdays he would play for the junior varsity, then suit up on Friday nights for the varsity.

For Conn, Nkemdiche was a fantasy come to life. The coach would use his neutron bomb up and down the line, depending on the situation. Conn won a national championship with Alabama in 1992 and racks his brain trying to come up with a comparison. Not quite Cornelius Bennett or Derrick Thomas but maybe Keith McCants, a 1989 All-American with the Tide who played six years in the NFL.

"He's kind of that size, but bigger," Conn said of Nkemdiche. "He's compact but has the thick legs, big shoulders, big arms, thin in the middle. He could probably walk in an NFL locker room and you wouldn't know the difference."

If Conn has a complaint it's that Nkemdiche the tailback -- imagine that! -- used too much finesse instead of lowering his sizable shoulders. "At 275, not too many kids are going to get in the way," Conn said.

Grayson will have 13 players sign scholarships this year, seven at the FBS level. That's the best fallout of Big Rob's popularity. Recruiters would come to see the five-star and get a look at his teammates.

On a recent night, Grayson hoops coach Geoffrey Pierce stood outside the Rams' locker room in a hallway after a tough loss. Nkemdiche did not play that night because of the flu. Pierce described the basketball version of the prospect as a "yes sir, no sir" type kid.

"That's pretty much across the board here at Grayson," the coach said. "Parents raise their kids right."

Big Rob isn't the best shooter, but gets about 12 rebounds a game, according to the coach. If he concentrated strictly on basketball, Pierce has no doubt Nkemdiche could snag a hoops scholarship. It remains a strange dynamic having the nation's No. 1 high school football player miss basketball practices and games, but it's understandable.

"I told him, 'If you want to play, I don't have a problem with you going on our visits,' " Pierce said. "Rob's had football coaches come in and watch basketball practice. It's ridiculous. It's absurd. It's crazy. I couldn't imagine what kind of pressure he's under."

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has been to at least three practices. LSU defensive Brick Haley has been a constant presence. One hook -- maybe the best one -- for Ole Miss is having big brother Denzel Nkemdiche, a rising junior linebacker for the Rebels.

Robert "figured it out" when he was a sophomore going to camps and dominating top offensive tackles.

"I'm not going to say, 'Embarrass them,' but I was really giving them good competition," he said.

It's interesting getting into the minds of these Godzillas whether they be Alabama All-Americans or a 18-year olds yet to take their first college snap.

"Just the fact that we can do what we do and get nasty, just go," Nkemdiche said of his day job. "When you're in the backfield and you have [a defender] in your face, you don't like that. It's not fun at all."

Ask Vincent Smith.

Nkemdiche will have to specialize a bit in college. No tailback. No quarterback, a position he admires, especially when Johnny Manziel plays it.

"He's not really that big, he just likes playing football," Nkemdiche said. "He gets it done, man. He likes to have fun. That's how I like to play football."

If the kid plays in the SEC, that would be one heck of a matchup -- Johnny Football vs. Big Rod. For now, it's all about possibilities and projections. Wednesday morning's announcement will be quiet -- or relatively quiet.

"He's not an attention whore," Pierce said.

Nkemdiche has seen all the "look-at-me" announcement shenanigans pulled by big-time recruits. That won't be him. There will be a podium. Underneath will be a hat. He'll put it on. The simple act will be nationally televised.

Please, though, went it becomes official no one shake his hand.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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