August 19, 2012

Star search leads to Georgia football factory

Ever since Georgia’s Herschel Walker stormed onto the college football scene, the Southeastern Conference has attracted a reputation for producing players with game-changing talent. Today, defensive linemen are the rage, and the nation’s top recruit also happens to be from the state.

High school football players take their places on a dreary summer morning. Looming large is a muscular figure in a No. 1 jersey who towers over his teammates with a regality that makes him seem even taller.

Grayson High School coach Mickey Conn exhales. Minutes earlier, Robert Nkemdiche was nowhere to be found, forcing Conn to scurry off the lush field on a search mission.

You can’t take a team photo without the consensus No. 1 player in the country, right?

“Did you shake his hand?” asks Grayson defensive-line coach Lenny Gregory, the corners of his mouth turned upward into a devilish grin. “I tell people all the time, if you’re going to meet him, don’t shake his hand. Give him a little fist bump, a little pound.”

That’s because Gregory contends that ever since Nkemdiche (pronounced KEM-dee-chay) was a freshman, he could break your hand if he wanted. Grayson’s prized defensive end has become only more devastating with age; in addition to his elite grip strength, an underrated tool for linemen, he stands 6 feet 5 and weighs 277 pounds. And did you know he runs a 4.52 40-yard dash and moonlights at running back?

“Teams try to use all kind of things to block him,” Gregory says. “Nothing works.”

College coaches are always searching for the next game-changing defensive lineman, the one who will disrupt offensive game plans and wreak havoc. But big-bodied, athletic talents like Nkemdiche are not only hard to find, but hard to land; the supply of such players simply doesn’t meet the demand.

But yet, it is the South — and thus, the Southeastern Conference — that seems to produce more of these players than other regions. Since 2007, the SEC has seen 14 of its defensive linemen get taken in the first round of the NFL Draft, four more than the Big Ten, the next closest conference. Across all positions, the SEC has had the most draftees the last six years.

Nkemdiche, who follows Missouri freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham as the nation’s top recruit, has made an oral commitment to Clemson, though 10 of the 14 SEC schools have offered him a scholarship, including Georgia.

“The thing about the SEC is the speed,” said former Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch, who currently works for Fox Sports South. “The defensive line speed, linebacker speed and secondary (speed) is NFL quality you watch the NFL Draft every year, and you see how many SEC guys are getting pulled into that draft.

“And you realize you’re dealing with a special conference with special players.”

There are reasons for this talent gap. Some coaches in Georgia say the year-round humidity, the football-obsessed culture and genetics all play a role. Regardless, the perception of the South as a region with superior talent is not new.

Long before Nkemdiche, there was another talent who shocked observers with his strength and speed, one who left an indelible legacy in Georgia that even today’s in-state stars can’t avoid.

“Herschel Walker?” Nkemdiche says, excitedly. “He was a bad dude.”

The gray-haired man settles into his chair and adjusts his glasses, the afternoon sun shining brightly through his corner office.

Claude Felton has seen some pretty good running backs during his 33-year tenure as Georgia’s sports information director. Terrell Davis, Garrison Hearst, Rodney Hampton, Tim Worley — all NFL players — come to mind.

But they weren’t Herschel. Nobody was like Herschel.

“I’d say he’s the greatest player to ever play at Georgia, maybe one of the top 10 to ever play college football,” Felton says. “He ignited the greatest run in school history.”

Starting in 1980, the first of Walker’s three years at Georgia, the Bulldogs went 33-3-1, won three SEC championships and made three Sugar Bowl appearances. They also went 12-0 and won a national championship his freshman year, when he finished third in the Heisman voting (he would win it as a junior) by rushing for 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Not bad, considering Felton says some questioned whether Walker — a chiseled 6-foot-1, 225-pound ball of muscle who had a decorated prep career at tiny Johnson County High School in Wrightsville (which played in Georgia’s lowest classification) — was really all he was cracked up to be.

“I can remember one of our coaches, when were recruiting Herschel, answering that question,” Felton says. “And he said, ‘The only thing I know is that he’s the biggest, strongest, fastest back I’ve ever seen.’ ”

That such a special player came from a small town should not be considered a surprise. Felton says that for years, the best talent in Georgia came from rural areas, where a special set of circumstances have combined over the years to make high school football


thing to do in the Peach State.

“Georgia has 159 counties, more than any state east of the Mississippi,” Felton says. “Every one of them has at least one high school. I think that’s one of the reasons high school football is so big here. It’s the biggest thing going in a lot of counties.”

Felton says this emphasis on football has a trickle-down effect; the resources these football-obsessed communities put into the sport make their head-coaching jobs attractive to top-notch coaches, who further develop that talent for colleges.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the evidence of Felton’s theory stronger than at Grayson, which opened in 2000 in talent-rich Gwinnett County, part of the Atlanta metro area, and has since emerged as a high school football power.

“Just ask the Grayson coach,” Felton says, “why he came to Grayson.”

When Mickey Conn stares out onto his players, he sees himself at that age. Eager. Driven. Obsessed with winning.

Conn, who moved to Georgia when he was 12 and played football at Alabama, knows that’s the only way to be if you’re going to be any good in Gwinnett County.

“Kids start playing football here at 6 years old — it’s just important to them,” says Conn, who graduated from nearby South Gwinnett High School. “I start bringing them over (to the high school) where I do a speed and agility (camp) when they are 6 years old, and we teach them how to run, show them how to do speed and agility drills, all that stuff. By the seventh grade, they’re lifting weights here with us.”

That hard work has paid off already for several kids, as coaches say seven of Grayson’s 11 defensive starters currently have scholarship offers. Like Nkemdiche, linebacker Wayne Gallman and defensive back David Kamara are committed to Clemson, while linebacker Zach Barnes (Tennessee) and defensive end Jack Banda (Arizona) are also BCS-level commitments.

Grayson’s coaches contend this is not a coincidence. The Rams, who finished 15-0 and won the state championship in Georgia’s biggest class, have an expansive weight room, locker room and equipment room. They also have a 13-man football staff with coaches who work at the school.

“I think back to me, when I was in high school, having maybe five coaches and three of them were teachers,” says Gregory, who grew up in California and played at Brigham Young. “You just can’t get that same coaching with that few coaches. These kids are getting really good instruction.”

Gregory also suspects the style of football in the South — fewer spread offenses and more run-heavy, pro-style schemes — helps develop defensive linemen.

“There’s more balanced offensive attacks, which will allow D-linemen to play a bigger part of the game,” he says. “You go to some of these states where it’s just one-back, no-back type stuff, it’s hard for a defensive lineman to get a lot of action because they are getting rid of the ball so quick.”

The importance of climate and spring football shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Missouri is the only SEC school in a state that doesn’t allow high school teams to practice in the spring, something Grayson’s coaches can’t imagine being without.

“All the states that have warm weather have more outside time,” Grayson defensive coordinator Robert Andrews says, “and we (coaches) love it.”

Still, the members of Grayson’s staff concede that they can’t take a whole lot of credit for Nkemdiche’s emergence. He’s been a star since his family moved to Grayson his seventh-grade year, and his genetics, well, you can’t teach that.

Robert Nkemdiche is humble, friendly and affable — he extends his strong right hand freely and with a grin — but acknowledges that the athletic gifts he possesses are not normal.

If they were, he wouldn’t be hounded by college coaches, who still call 20 to 30 times a day whenever they are allowed. But to Nkemdiche’s credit, he understands why the schools are so persistent — he made 78 tackles, 36 for losses and 18 sacks last year.

But here are some other stats that are fitting for a player considered to be the latest in a long line of athletic marvels from the South since Herschel Walker’s day. Last season, Nkemdiche rushed for 528 yards and 17 touchdowns in spot duty on offense.

Turns out he patterned some aspects of his game after Walker, a man whose legacy, especially in Georgia, cannot be overlooked.

“I watched a lot of his film,” Nkemdiche says. “I try to run the ball like he does. Every little YouTube clip you can get of Herschel Walker, I’ve seen it, probably.

“Before Cam Newton and Julius Peppers and all those guys, he was the first one to bring big and fast people from the South (to the forefront). I just think he was such a great player.”

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