Prospects are poked, prodded, investigated in every way imaginable in the months leading up to the NFL Draft. Scouts will call your coaches, teammates, friends, enemies and, hey, why not sit in the back of a bar and monitor your behavior?
Every word that comes out of your mouth will be judged.
Which all made Robert Nkemdiche’s NFL scouting combine press conference that more bizarre. Arrested for marijuana possession after falling from an Atlanta-area hotel room, he was suspended by Ole Miss. Shamed, nationally. And then at the Combine, he said he was drunk that night, not on drugs. “Nobody wanted to take the fall,” he explained. He said that the media “tarnished” his name. When the conversation shifted to football, Nkemdiche admitted he was “lazy” at times in 2015 and didn’t always finish plays.
No, this is not exactly acing the job interview.
Then there’s a personnel director telling the Journal Sentinel, “The guy has disaster written all over him” … another saying “he’d be a guy you give a big contract to and he’d be happy” … and a scout adding “He doesn’t just think football, football, football 24/7.”
So who is the real Robert Nkemdiche? The Buffalo Bills, under Rex Ryan, will always be willing to take a chance on a prospect with off-field blemishes. An arrest. A bullying controversy. You name it. But the players Ryan has signed or drafted so far haven’t had their love of football questioned quite like this. Nkemdiche’s unworldly athleticism, at 6 foot 3, 294 pounds, could be exactly what this defense needs to recalibrate into an elite unit, but the Bills must absolutely know what makes Nkemdiche tick before drafting him.
One person who thinks he knows Nkemdiche as well as anyone is Mickey Conn, who coached him at Grayson (Ga.) High School and gave him a roof to live under for a year.
Nkemdiche lived with his defensive line coach Lenny Gregory, Conn and a teammate through high school with his mother off to Nigeria working as a diplomat and his father working as a cardiologist in Mississippi.
And the Nkemdiche that Conn knows went to all of his two sons’ sports games. Basketball. Football. Baseball. Nkemdiche was like a big brother cheering them on in the stands. He’d go to birthday parties, speak in front of elementary classes and loved having kids hanging all over his oak tree-built body.
Conn repeats that, above all else, Nkemdiche has a huge heart.
“He’s so kind to people and so giving,” said Conn, who now works for Clemson’s football team as a senior defensive assistant. “He’s getting pulled in 100 directions and there’s a lot of people taking advantage of him. He’s such a nice young kid, that he doesn’t know how to say ‘no’ to folks. He does not want to hurt someone’s feelings. He cares about how people feel. He doesn’t want to hurt peoples’ feelings, and that’s the real Robert Nkemdiche.”
Once the real estate business crashed and his mother flew overseas, Nkemdiche started living in others’ homes.
“So, yeah, how would that feel?” Conn said. “Moving around all the time?”
On the field, Nkemdiche became the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit with 41 career sacks at Grayson, in addition to rushing for 763 yards and 27 touchdowns as a junior and senior. Right here was a 285-pounder with six-pack abs, a football unicorn. Conn could hardly get through practice — he’d need to tell Nkemdiche to sub out on defense completely or at least have two players blocking him just so the offense could run a play.
On game day, it was almost unfair.
“It was like a NFL player playing against high school kids,” Conn said. “You can imagine a 150-pound safety trying to tackle a guy who weighs 285 and runs a 4.6 coming at you. Imagine that. When Robert’s one on one with somebody, he’s so naturally strong and freakish, he can post you up and put you on your back. He can do that to the best of them.
“It’s just an amazing, amazing gift that God’s given him physically.”
There were flashes of this supreme athleticism at Ole Miss. His pressure forced three of Alabama’s five turnovers in a 43-37 Ole Miss upset win last fall. But he only finished with three sacks and seven tackles for loss on the season. His full game tape leaves scouts wanting more and that whole “lazy” line didn’t help. Conn says repeatedly that Nkemdiche’s effort was never an issue in high school, but he does admit he’ll need a coach who’ll push him.
“Like anybody else, if you let somebody get away with not going full speed, then that’s their mind-set,” Conn said. “But if you push him and drive him and work him, then he’s going to respond to that. He’s going to respect his coaches. Whoever takes him, if they give him a mentor who can help him, he missed a lot there growing up. He needs a positive male role model to help him.
“I think Robert was a little too honest saying he was ‘lazy.’ But that’s him. He’s very transparent and always expects more out of himself. He was never a kid that took plays off for me. So that’s news to me because I didn’t see that as his coach.”
Thus, Conn believes Rex Ryan would be the perfect coach for Nkemdiche.
“Because there’s a no-nonsense guy,” he said. “I think that would be good for Robert. That’s what he needs. He needs someone to control him and make sure he’s doing the right thing. He always did for me.”
Soon, the real Robert Nkemdiche will stand up. Soon, we’ll see if he’s boom or bust. Nkemdiche spoke at length about this all in an ESPN The Magazine feature posted last week. Naturally, he’d like to buy a pet panther with his first NFL contract. This certainly is someone with many interests outside of football.
Three days before the NFL draft, his old coach sees one bad decision unfairly “haunting” Nkemdiche.
He hopes teams know the player he does.
“It’s amazing what a great kid he was and still is now,” Conn said. “I just think he got caught at a party and did something wrong, obviously, and he’s been judged on that. It takes a lot of time to build a reputation and five seconds to ruin it. He’s having to learn through that but I’m telling you, the kid’s a worker and he always has been.”