Grayson football coach Mickey Conn remembers when he decided Robert Nkemdiche was special.
“It was the first time I saw him,’’ Conn said. “He was in the eighth grade. He returned a kickoff about 80 yards. He was 6-4 then, so he was twice the size of everybody on the field, and he could fly. It was pretty obvious.’’
It still is.
At 6-foot-4 ½ and 270 pounds with 4.6 speed over 40 yards, Nkemdiche stands out in a way that few underclassmen or defensive linemen have in Georgia high school football. He’s only the second junior ever to be named the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s all-classification player of the year, an honor first given in 1981. Washaun Ealey of Emanuel County Institute was the first in 2007.
Nkemdiche is the son of Nigerians. His father is a doctor. His mother is a legislator in her native country who returns to Georgia only a few times a year. Their son didn’t start playing football until he was 13.
Five years later, Nkemdiche led Grayson to its first-ever state championship. He had 18 sacks and 18 other tackles behind the line of scrimmage this season.
His growing reputation – Nkemdiche is rated the No. 1 class-of-2013 college prospect in the nation by one recruiting site – drew conspicuous double- and triple-teaming, but it freed up talented teammates to dominate opposing offenses.
Grayson allowed 38 yards rushing per game. No player rushed for 100 yards. Only one team did it. Colquitt County had 101 yards in the semifinals.
But what made Nkemdiche stand out more was his impact on offense. He rushed for 528 yards and 17 touchdowns on 107 carries. In the Class AAAAA championship game against Walton, Nkemdiche carried eight times on Grayson’s first scoring drive on the way to a 24-0 victory.
“What he does on offense is harder to deal with than what he does on defense,’’ Walton coach Rocky Hidalgo said. “It’s like a bowling ball. When it goes in there, they’re going to fall over. He’s as impressive a physical specimen as I’ve seen in 15 years of coaching.’’
Conn first began using Nkemdiche as a running back in the playoffs last season, when Grayson surprisingly reached the semifinals. It was more about short-yardage situations then.
Now, Nkemdiche might enter at any time. Conn said a big back is more effective in today’s game because so many defenses are designed to stop spread offenses. They’re faster, but not as physical.
“There were some games where we wanted to soften up a defense,’’ Conn said. “Nothing softens them up like a dose of Robert up the middle. It’s hard to stop 270 pounds running a 4.6.’’
Nkemdiche’s future will be interesting. Grayson returns nine starters on defense, a fact that depresses some opposing coaches.
“He has no business playing in high school,’’ Kell coach Derek Cook said after facing Nkemdiche in August. “He is ready for college right now, physically. He would be a candidate to go straight from high school to the NFL.’’
But Nkemdiche doesn’t talk much about recruiting or the NFL, Conn said. He has offers from Georgia to Oregon, but hasn’t narrowed his choices much.
“His humility is something that ought to be discussed, too,’’ Conn said. “He’s been getting this attention since he was in the tenth grade, but he’s grounded. He acts like a high school kid.’’
AJC all-classification players of the year:
2011 – DL Robert Nkemdiche, Grayson
2010 – QB Tim Byerly, Chattahoochee
2009 – WR Da’Rick Rogers, Calhoun
2008 – ATH Greg Reid, Lowndes
2007 – RB Washaun Ealey, ECI
2006 – DB Eric Berry, Creekside
2005 – QB Antonio Henton, Peach County
2004 – LB Tray Blackmon, LaGrange
2003 – RB Darius Walker, Buford
2002 – OL Zeb McKenzey, Parkview
2001 – DB Jeff Francouer, Parkview
2000 – RB Monte Williams, Commerce
1999 – LB Travis Harris, SW DeKalb
1998 – WR Reggie Brown, Carrollton
1997 – RB Joe Burns, Thomas County Central
1996 – RB Paul Freeman, Brookwood
1995 – QB Quincy Carter, SW DeKalb
1994 – LB Takeo Spikes, Washington County
1993 – RB Rod Perrymond and DL Travis Stroud, Dunwoody
1992 – QB Mike Bobo, Thomasville, and LB Marcus Williams, Valdosta
1991 – QB Rodney Hudson, LaGange
1990 – QB Eric Zeier, Marietta
1989 – RB Garrison Hearst, Lincoln County
1988 – RB Herbert Mingo, Clinch County
1987 – LB Curt Douglas, Lincoln County
1986 – QB Greg Talley, Valdosta
1985 – QB Billy Ray, Dunwoody
1984 – RB Keith Henderson, Cartersville
1983 – QB Vince Sutton, LaGrange
1982 – RB David McCluskey, West Rome
1981 – RB Ben Logue, North Springs