Brad Boyette described it as eerie.
The head football coach at Horn Lake High School in Horn Lake, Mississippi, had heard all the comparisons surrounding one of his recently-graduated players, five-star inside linebacker Nakobe Dean. People were touting Dean as the latest incarnation of former Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Roquan Smith.
"I said, 'Well OK, I'll compare Nakobe's high school highlights to Roquan and just see,'" Boyette said.
After watching the tape, Boyette came to the same conclusion as many others. Dean was a spitting image of Smith, the eighth overall pick by the Chicago Bears in the 2018 NFL Draft and a starter on one of the NFL's best defenses a season ago.
Like Smith, Dean possesses the speed and strength necessary to be a force on an SEC defense.
However, what has set him apart throughout his life is his desire to learn and pay attention to detail, something that dates back to his days growing up in Mississippi.
A competitive child
Children latch onto different items growing up. Some carry blankets, others can't be separated from certain toys.
Dean was different.
"He always had a ball," Dean's mother Neketta said. "I think one of his first words was ball. He was sweet with a ball. I would go to his little bed and there would be a ball in there. He'd be in my bed, there's a ball in the bed."
Dean began playing sports at a local recreation center when he was 3 years old. His mother described him as very competitive, to the point where he was told repeatedly to stop tackling in a youth flag football league.
That competitiveness pushed Dean to take whatever steps necessary to be the best, whether in sports or board games.
"I had to play Scrabble with him just like I was playing with another adult," Neketta Dean said.
In school, that fire pushed Dean to be one of the top students in his class. When her three children reached middle school, Dean's mother rewarded them with $100 for all A's, with the reward dropping to $25 if there was one B.
But Dean wanted nothing to do with a consolation prize.
"He would say, 'I don't even want the $25,'" Dean's mother said. "'I don't even want the money if I get a B, mom.'"
As he progressed into middle school, it became clear that Dean had the athletic talent to land a collegiate scholarship one day. Obviously a talented football player, he also excelled in baseball and basketball.
It was in one of those two sports that Dean's mother thought he had a future. He could dunk in middle school, and he once made $80 in an AAU baseball game after a coach promised him $20 for every home run he hit.
But all along, he knew his true passion and talent was on the gridiron.
"He said that was his niche," Neketta Dean said. "He said, 'I'm an OK basketball player, but I'm a good football player and I can be a better football player with the right applications.'"
The total package
The first time Boyette worked with Dean on a football field, the future five-star linebacker was an offensive guard who had just finished his eighth-grade season.
"One of our assistants on the varsity staff now, he was actually the middle school head coach at that time," Boyette said. "We give him a hard time about evaluating talent."
To that coach's credit, Dean also played defensive end and linebacker in middle school. On the first day of working with high school coaches after the eighth-grade season, Dean performed flawlessly in a coverage drill, leading Boyette to question why the other kids couldn't pick it up as fast.
As it turned out, he had just had his first encounter with a player that he said has the "total package."
"I've had really smart football players, I've had really athletic football players, I've had football players that maybe were not real good students but they had really good football IQ," Boyette said. "But to have all of it, a guy that's a straight-A student, his football IQ's off the chart and he's the most athletic, that's one out of however many in 25 years."
Ordinarily, Boyette shies away from playing players early in their career if he feels they aren't ready. However, he could tell Dean was prepared to compete at the 6A level, the highest classification in Mississippi, and he started every game as a freshman.
Dean didn't have to be the alpha male on that 2015 defense at Horn Lake. But over time, he grew into both a vocal leader and a leader by example by commanding the respect of every player on the team.
"I think that's related to the fact that anything he asked someone else to do, they clearly saw that anything and everything he did, he did to his absolute best," Boyette said.
While developing into one of the premier prep linebackers in the nation, Dean made sure not to neglect his studies. His mother said he developed a routine -- come home, eat four or five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, do homework and study for three hours and then work out.
Boyette added that through the Hudl video system, they were able to see how much film Dean watched on his own time every week. Often, it was around 15 hours.
"It was the fact that he understood and he got the big picture that, 'Hey, my stance has got to be perfect, my first step has got to be perfect,'" Boyette said. "He understood that everything, every little small detail was huge."
That attention to detail led a rival running back at a postseason all-star game to tell Boyette that he could always hear Dean telling the defense what play was coming before the snap. It also resulted in Dean making a pivotal play in the 2018 state championship game.
Horn Lake's opponent, Oak Grove, ran a play from the Wildcat formation where a receiver went in motion and then ran down the sideline. The safety was fooled on the play and vacated where he was supposed to be, leaving the receiver open.
Dean recognized the mistake occurring behind him, turned and sprinted to catch up with the receiver. He covered him enough to force the quarterback to hold the ball and eventually take a sack.
"I could go through each game and probably give you four or five examples just like that one of where he did something that, maybe not necessarily coached to do it, not what he was supposed to be doing, but realizing, 'Hey, this is what's going on and in order for me to make a play, I've got to be here,'" Boyette said.
An engineer between the hedges
Neketta Dean let her son handle the athletic side of the recruiting process. She took care of finding the best school for her son, who graduated high school with over a 4.3 GPA.
Dean wanted to major in engineering, and Georgia's mechanical engineering program earned accreditation in 2018. While some saw the upstart program as a drawback, Dean's mother was drawn to it.
"A school with a young program brings young and bright minds," Dean's mother said. "We've got to change with the times, we can't just be stuck."
Dean graduated from Horn Lake High School in December 2018 and enrolled at Georgia in January. He's majoring in mechanical engineering, and his mother said he hopes to one day go to medical school.
But it wasn't just the engineering program that helped secure Dean's commitment. His mother mentioned a scavenger hunt that took place on a recruiting visit in May of last year where Kirby Smart and the staff made the day fun for players and their families.
"We had been to plenty of schools prior to that and all of them had the same routine, the same routine," Dean's mother said. "When we came to Georgia, we had fun, there was an opportunity to ask questions. The scavenger hunt was, it did it for me."
She also said Jonas Jennings, Georgia's director of player development, was a big factor in Dean's recruitment.
Dean grew up without a father figure after his father left the family when he was just 1 year old. His mother said she was constantly in her children's business, and she saw some of those same qualities in Jennings.
For example, Jennings told her he was always getting onto players about buying multiple pairs of shoes that were all the same color and not being wise with their money.
"When you go to other schools, they were like, 'Kids are kids and we're going to let them be,'" Dean's mother said. "No, somebody needs to get in their butt sometimes and know that, 'Hey, I'm watching you. I see you.'"
Dean's first semester in Athens has drawn to a close, and he competed on the Sanford Stadium turf for the first time at G-Day on April 20.
There's no questioning that down the line, Dean has everything necessary to be the next great inside linebacker between the hedges. Just ask senior defensive lineman David Marshall, who made the comparison so many others have when asked about Dean this spring.
"He's another Roquan," Marshall said. "He's got speed, he's fast, he's smart. He knows more plays than most of the other freshmen."
Printed with permission from The Red & Black independent student media organization, based in Athens, Georgia. For more UGA sports news, visit www.redandblack.com/sports.