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June 15, 2012
The question has already been asked a hundred times, but now that Loganville (Ga.) Grayson defensive end Robert Nkemdiche has committed to Clemson, it will be asked again. Is Nkemdiche, the nation's No. 1 player in the class of 2013, better than South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's No. 1 player in 2011, at the same stage of development?
I'm not going to demur and say something like, "they are different players and have different body types, so it's hard to say." I also don't want to say the next great player is better than the last great player, just for shock value. People want to know the answer, the true and honest answer with no sensationalism, politics or hidden agenda. And based on pure film evaluation, Clowney clearly has the edge. But why and how big of an edge is it?
The first thing it comes down to is length. Clowney is a longer prospect, longer arms, longer legs and torso, and that allows him to cover a bit more ground and do a little better job in space. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds coming out of his junior year, Clowney was not quite as big or strong as Nkemdiche is at the same stage, but he was able to track things down better to the outside and make plays in the backfield at times, simply because of his long arms. Watch on film and you can see a few times where Clowney makes a play with his hands and fingertips, even when being blocked or apparently out of range. That extra length made him a bit more special.
While Nkemdiche has the edge in strength and is more a bit more versatile than Clowney in some respects (he could play defensive tackle while Clowney would struggle inside), Clowney is better in pursuit and much quicker off the snap.
Nkemdiche can handle double-teams a bit better and is stronger at the point of attack, but Clowney reads the snap count like he's under center and can split double teams with such ease, it's a thing of beauty.
Both players do a good job of backside pursuit and getting down the line of scrimmage to make plays from behind, but Clowney reaches top speed quicker and closes much stronger. If you like animal analogies, think cheetah pursuing gazelle. When the cheetah gets within a certain range, it's over. That's Clowney.
Both players could play standup linebacker in college if they wanted to, they are that athletic, and both could come off the edge standing up as a 7-technique and be a menace in the opposing backfield. But both are better with their hand on the ground.
Clowney has a better outside pass rush, while Nkemdiche is better at getting into the body of opponents and rocking them back. Nkemdiche plays over a body more often and is inside at times, while Clowney liked to line out wide, but even when shoulder-to-shoulder with a tackle, Clowney is quicker to the outside.
Both are good with their technique, mixing up moves, using misdirection and getting free of blockers. Clowney has a great arm-over move while Nkemdiche extends his arms well and rides linemen into the backfield. But when it comes to footwork, Clowney has the clear edge here, setting up opponents with quick feet and showing amazing balance and agility.
But while length, quickness off the snap, strength, versatility, technique and footwork are all important, the wow factor that separates the two of them is pure speed.
Clowney runs like a wide receiver, and that, combined with his incredible motor and ability to change direction without losing a step, allows him to make plays all over the field. Nkemdiche lacks that same suddenness and quickness off the snap as well as in pursuit, and doesn't have quite the same "freak" quality.
The bottom line is that both are great players at the same stage and both are No. 1 at their position and in the nation.
But Clowney is that rare defensive end who comes along once every 20 years or so and Nkemdiche is not.
Clowney is the best high school football player I have seen in more than a decade scouting prospects, and in 2011 there was zero doubt in my mind that he would be No. 1 from bell to bell.
For 2013, there are a few other candidates for that coveted No. 1 slot and it could come down to the wire. The question here is more about Nkemdiche being better than players such as Ronald Powell, Jackson Jeffcoat and yes, even DaQuan Bowers. Those are better discussions that the Clowney comparisons.
None of this diminishes the effect of Nkemdiche's commitment to Clemson, nor does it put a damper on his ability or upside. Dabo Swinney and company are recruiting at a ridiculous level and to land the nation's No. 1 player out of state, a prospect many felt would end up at Alabama or LSU, will bring dividends this year and down the line. But when comparing the two Palmetto State commitments, Clowney has the edge on film and a pretty good one at that.
Clowney is a rarity and comparing anyone to him is like comparing wide receivers to Jerry Rice or offensive tackles to Anthony Munoz. It's not fair.
Of course, we will be asking the same question after this upcoming season regarding 2014 phenom Da'Shawn Hand from Woodbridge (Va.) Woodbridge Senior and that could be an interesting discussion.
Regardless, there is celebration in Clemson, S.C., as yet another five-star commits to the Tigers, who could be assembling a roster that could compete for a national title sooner rather than later.