KISSIMMEE — Ignore the gaudy muscles and explosive frame, and focus on the most important part of the country’s top player and star of Friday’s Under Armour All-America Game.
Stop at the Nigerian name on the back of his Team Highlight jersey:
Nkemdiche. I’m different.
And Robert Nkemdiche is different. The Under Armour All-America Game has seen plenty of elite pass rushers, including former No. 1 recruits Jadeveon Clowney and Mario Edwards Jr., but none of them have been like Nkemdiche.
This year’s consensus No. 1 recruit is a melting pot of cultures in pursuit of the American dream. His deep Georgia twang peppers conversations with y’alls. Mickey Mouse studs sparkle from his ears. And his story goes back a generation to a country half a world away.
His parents emigrated from Nigeria to America before he was born in search of better jobs. His mother went to college in Oklahoma. His dad became a doctor.
“They came here because they wanted to make a life over here,” Nkemdiche said.
They settled in Loganville, Ga., where their children became football stars. Robert’s older brother, Denzel, starred at Grayson High and leads Ole Miss with 78 tackles as a redshirt freshman linebacker.
American football became an important part of their lives, but the Nkemdiche family didn’t stray from its Nigerian culture. The African stews and soups his mother made fed Robert’s frame, which exploded to 6-foot-5, 265 pounds and attracted college coaches from across the country.
“I don’t know how she makes it,” Nkemdiche said, “but I know it’s good, and I eat it.”
Recruitniks who have followed his high school career saw him feast on a buffet of opposing players. He tallied 18 sacks as a junior and was among the top performers in practice this week at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
“He’s got speed, power, quickness,” said offensive lineman Ira Denson, a Florida State commit who will try to stop Nkemdiche for Team Nitro. “He’s got all the things in one.”
Nkemdiche committed to Clemson in June but backed out five months later. He ranks Ole Miss and LSU as his current top choices, though he said other schools could enter the mix.
When it’s time to make a decision, he said he’ll focus on the advice of his family, including his mother, Beverly, who moved back to Africa to become a state legislator.
Before he enters the next phase of his career, whether it’s in Oxford or Baton Rouge or somewhere else, Nkemdiche said he wants to make one more stop — a trip to Nigeria and the roots that sprouted America’s top recruit.
“I just want to see my background and see what it’s about,” he said. “See where I’m from.”
Five players to watch
1. OL Ira Denson (Team Nitro): Last year’s game featured a handful of FSU-bound athletes, including MVP Jameis Winston and Edwards. This year, Seminole fans have to focus on St. Petersburg Catholic running back Ryan Green and Denson, a four-star athlete from Madison County. The 6-foot-4, 317-pounder said he’s been an FSU fan “since I was knee high,” but also has interest in USF. He called the Bulls a program on the rise and said he plans to visit USF next week.
2. LB Reuben Foster (Team Nitro): Foster was the center of this recruiting class’ most bizarre story. The Auburn, Ala., native caused a stir when he switched his commitment from Alabama to Auburn — and showed it off with a new tattoo. Five months later, he decommitted from the Tigers. Regardless of where he ends up, the 6-foot-2, 242-pounder remains a five-star talent and had a strong week of practice.
3. RB Kelvin Taylor (Team Highlight): The Florida commit had one of the best rushing careers ever for Glades Day and was impressive in the backfield this week, too. He has good hands and runs hard and drew praise from coach Herm Edwards.
4. QB Kevin Olsen (Team Nitro): The New Jersey native will head south to play for the Hurricanes. He’s one of the game’s shorter quarterbacks at 6-foot-2 but has a strong arm. He’ll face a loaded secondary, led by Armwood safety Leon McQuay III and Wharton defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III.
5. DE Carl Lawson (Team Nitro): The Auburn commit is ESPN’s No. 2 overall recruit, is powerful and one of the game’s quickest pass rushers. He starred in practice early this week but appeared to injure his shoulder Thursday. The extent of his injury was unclear, but if he’s healthy enough to play today, he could be a game changer.
Commitment watch: Six players, including McQuay, are expected to announce their college choices during Friday's game. McQuay is considering FSU, Michigan, Vanderbilt, Oregon and USC.
The others are four-star athlete Kendell Beckwith (Jackson, La.), UF target and four-star linebacker Trey Johnson (Lawrenceville, Ga.), five-star defensive back Max Redfield (Mission Viejo, Calif.), Gators target and four-star linebacker Ebenezer Ogundeko (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and four-star offensive lineman Na’Ty Rodgers (Pomfret, Md.).
Under Armour All-America Game
When: 5 p.m. Friday
Where: Tropicana Field
Tickets: General admission $18, four-ticket bundles $48. Call toll-free 1-800-745-3000 or visit ticketmaster.com.
By the numbers
Commitments to state schools
6 UF (Armwood WR Alvin Bailey, Wharton DB Vernon Hargreaves III, Belle Glade Glades Day RB Kelvin Taylor, South Sumter S Keanu Neal, Orlando Dr. Phillips S Marcell Harris, Va. Briar Woods LB Matt Rolin)
2 FSU (St. Petersburg Catholic RB Ryan Green, Madison County OL Ira Denson)
2 Miami (N.J. Wayne Hills QB Kevin Olsen, Miami Northwestern DB Artie Burns)
Recruits pledged to national title contenders
4 Notre Dame
Most represented states
5,975 Miles (via Google Maps) from Tropicana Field to Honolulu, hometown of LB Isaac Savaiinaea
5 Bailey, Hargreaves, Green, Armwood S Leon McQuay III, St. Petersburg K Sean Covington
By the weight
165 Lightest players (Ga. Sandy Creek DB Shaq Wiggins, Ohio Washington DB Gareon Conley)
333 Heaviest player (Miami Washington OL Denver Kirkland)
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.