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April 19, 2012

Nkemdiche proves hard work pays off

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LOGANVILLE, Ga. - Robert Nkemdiche, drenched in sweat from head to toe, had just finished doing a few sets of one-legged thrusts inside the Grayson (Ga.) High football team's strength center earlier this week and needed to sit down for a moment. He placed himself on a chair, hunched over a bit and took one deep breath after the other.

"Oh my God!" a drained Nkemdiche bellowed.

For Nkemdiche, a junior defensive end and the country's No. 1 high school football prospect in the class of 2013, this after-school conditioning session was far from over. In fact, it was only just getting started.

Before long, Nkemdiche arrived at another station inside the center, where the emphasis on this afternoon for the defending state champions was building core and leg strength. Later, the players, about two dozen in all, headed outside to the football field to, among other things, toss a medicine ball, run sprints and pull a sled with a 45-pound weight latched to it.

To Nkemdiche, all of this is a necessary evil.

"I'm motivated to hold the top spot [in the rankings]," Nkemdiche said. "But we've still got to win games. We've still got to win championships. So it's not just worrying about my rating."

It's safe to say Nkemdiche - who lists a top five (in alphabetical order) of Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss and could pick a school as early as mid-May - is not content with the success and notoriety that have come with being No. 1.

"He works hard," said Ryan Carter, his teammate at Grayson. "I know for a fact he's trying to stay No. 1. A lot of No. 1 guys probably act like they don't have to work because they're on top. That's not Robert. He always comes to work out after school. He comes to weight training. He always wants to do the conditioning. If we miss a workout, he calls and says we need to get that in."

The player some longtime Georgia football observers have called the best Peach State prospect in years, is no prima donna. Despite his lofty status, Nkemdiche gets no special treatment from head coach Mickey Conn and his staff, during Grayson's 90-minute offseason workouts. Nor has he asked for it, teammates told Rivals.com.

"If he's lazy, they make an example out of him," Grayson cornerback David Kamara said.

Exactly how often does Nkemdiche slack?

"It's rare," Kamara said. "He's self-motivated."

In fact, Grayson players insisted the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Nkemdiche, who recently recorded a 40-yard dash time of 4.56 seconds (something more typical of a skill position player), arguably is the most competitive guy on the squad. And not just on Friday nights, when he recorded 19 sacks in each of the past two seasons.

"He always tries to compete with us," said the 175-pound Carter. "He wants to be faster than the defensive backs. He does the 40 and he tries to beat us. He always thinks he's as fast as us. When we race, I win, but he's right there. It's not like I'm burning him. He's right behind me. He gets so mad. He's like, 'Oh my God, I had you.' He's competitive at everything. He always wants to win."

The benefits of Nkemdiche's competitiveness are plenty. Not only have they helped him grow as a player, but that spirit apparently has spread to his teammates.

"Everyone else sees that and everyone feeds off that," Carter said. "It makes everyone work harder. He could really slack off, and you couldn't say anything about it since he's so good. Since he's working, we've got to work with him."

Because Nkemdiche already is built like an NFL player, the assumption from some is that perhaps things come easy for him, he said.

"They think it's natural," said Nkemdiche, whose body fat is so low he sometimes suffers from severe cramping. "They don't understand how much work I put in with my team. All summer and all spring, we're working out. It just doesn't come all of a sudden. I work for it."

Besides the four weekdays of conditioning at school, Nkemdiche does his best to stay active elsewhere.

"Whenever I can, I get outside and play basketball, ride a bicycle, run - different things like that," Nkemdiche said. "I do as much as I can on my own. Sometimes I come up here [to the school] and just work out."

Although Nkemdiche claimed the pressure of being so heavily pursued by every major college program "isn't getting to me," he admitted the team's offseason training isn't just a way to improve, but is a regular break from the daily grind of his recruitment.

"Mostly, when I'm out there, I'm just thinking about how it's going to help us for the season," Nkemdiche said. "I'm worried about my team and the things that can help us. I want to get faster and quicker, and have better awareness. The hardest thing is trying to do everything 100 percent. If you do it 100 percent you're going to get tired. Pushing yourself makes everything a little harder."

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at Keithrivals@yahoo.com. You can follow him on Twitter @KeithRIVALS.



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