Had Grayson played Colquitt County last year, the Q-ratings of the two teams would have been roughly equal. On the one side, Colquitt coach Rush Propst draws attention wherever he goes. On the other, Grayson had one of the most talented senior classes in state history, led by the nation’s No. 1 recruit Robert Nkemdiche.
Not so this year, where the neon quotient heavily favors Propst and the Packers in Saturday’s opener between the two teams in the Corky Kell Classic at the Georgia Dome. Colquitt, ranked No. 2 in AAAAAA entering the 2013 season, is the only school since the start of the 2006 season to score 30 points against the Rams.
While Grayson coach Mickey Conn undoubtedly would love to have a handful of recruits like he had in 2012, he can live without the limelight.
The recruitment of Nkemdiche during the 2012 football season took on a through-the-looking-glass quality in and around the Grayson program.
“We had an unbelievable team last year,” Grayson coach Mickey Conn said. “The kids played their tails off last year. There was a level of distraction there where if you’re a 16- or 17-year old kid … Robert was a rock star, and after a while that wears on you.”
It is fair to wonder how much effect the external attention had on the Rams’ play. In both of their losses to Parkview in Week 3 and North Gwinnett in the second round of the playoffs, turnovers and penalties proved extremely costly.
Conn is quick to point out that being in the recruiting spotlight had its advantages. Nkemdiche’s profile afforded more exposure to his teammates, many of whom also signed Division I scholarships. Conn was invited to coach in the Under Armor All-American Game in Orlando, and the Grayson program gained national attention, at one point being ranked No. 1.
While the recruiters were professional, though, the pursuit of all things Nkemdiche by others took on a life of its own.
“It was one distraction after another for him, and it was unfair to him and unfair to our team,” said Conn. “The phone calls from the media was the most annoying thing. There was always a new angle, a new story. Just gossip and stuff like that should have never been talked about. Every hour it was a different phone call. I had to turn my phone off.”
The 2013 season presents Conn and the Rams a different reality. Instead of a never-ending barrage of questions from outside the program, the questions are all on the field, where the veteran coach has much greater control, although only one returning starter, senior halfback Aares McCall.
McCall was second on the team in rushing with 764 yards on 97 carries in 2012, scoring five touchdowns.
Conn says the pieces are there, it’s just finding the right places for all of them.
“I like the hunger that this team has. It’s like the hunger we had before we won the state championship,” Conn said. “That’s what high school football should be about. We haven’t had nearly the attention.”
The lowered expectations, while perhaps a natural assumption given the losses the Rams had to graduation, have surprised Conn, whose body of work places him among the state’s elite coaches. He started the Grayson program and has gone 110-39 in 13 seasons, including a string of six consecutive 10-victory seasons that, as he points out, started when Nkemdiche was in the seventh grade.
“I think the program has earned a little more respect than what they’re getting,” said Conn, who in some ways have adjusted his approach in preparation for the 2013 season. There’s the team slogan: Redefine the Grind, a reference to a need for blue-collar style toughness.
With a team full of players who have waited their turn behind high-profile recruits, motivation should be easy.
“These kids are getting their opportunity. It’s been fun to watch them go through workouts and start to become leaders themselves,” he said.