Nakobe Dean-Georgia football-UGA football
National champion LB and two-time Butkus Award winner Nakobe Dean is one of 14 likely Georgia football candidates for the 2022 NFL Draft later this month. (Jeff Sentell / DawgNation)

Nakobe Dean: Georgia’s ultimate achiever looks to NFL Draft as next big career climb

DawgNation is publishing a series of stories of the Georgia football NFL Draft prospects leading up to the 2022 NFL Draft. Jordan Davis kickstarted the series and was followed by Lewis Cine and DeVont’e Wyatt. This DawgNation profile will be on team defensive anchor Nakobe Dean.

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The first time this observer interacted with Nakobe Dean in person was at the 2018 Nike Opening Camp in Atlanta.

The signs were all clear back then. They were blaring in a 120-point font.

Dean performed up to his standing as the nation’s No. 1 linebacker at the event. The testing. The cat-and-mouse game. Even in frigid conditions.

When his position drills ended, he was a popular interview subject. Reporters that covered every school in the country sought him out.

Alabama. Auburn. Florida. FSU. Miami. LSU. Oklahoma. Ole Miss. Georgia. Tennessee. Texas. Pick a school.

That’s when players as highly rated as Dean do a couple of interviews and dip out. Or just conduct a group interview and bounce.

Not this fella. He must have conducted 15-to-20 back-to-back interviews that Sunday morning at Buford High School. Candid. Smiling. Gracious. They could have all been NFL general managers at the combine.

Dean stood in a winter coat and graciously granted every request. If a reporter from the Buford Middle School Gazette (if there is such a thing) would have called on him, they would have treated them no differently than if they were representing ESPN or the NFL Network.

That’s the same way he handled himself on the phone, too.

The first in-person impression crystallized what was already clear sizing up Dean.

On the field? Big check. Off of it? Maybe an even bigger one.

The second interaction was at the Alabama-Mississippi Classic. Dean was everywhere in an early week practice picking off multiple passes during a team period. Knocking down passes.

He looked two steps ahead of everyone on everything. That was just after the first practice day.

Former Georgia QB commitment John Rhys Plumlee told a memorable story of how they couldn’t get anything done offensively. Dean was shredding everything they tried. He remarked Dean already knew their plays better than the guys lining up in front of Plumlee did.

Dean would later say he had studied the tendencies of certain players on the Mississippi offense once practice began. Their eye movements and body language clued him into tendencies left and right.

Plumlee was equally frustrated and thankful to have Dean on his side.

The fourth interaction was two weeks later after he had just signed (the third interaction) with Georgia. Dean was doing much of the same. This was just in a much deeper talent pool at the Under Armour All-American Game.

The only thing that didn’t seem comfortable to him was his look. Dean was just a bit shy of being seen in a wild aqua and pink practice gear color palette. We all would be there, though.

He talked of winning championships in college, of teaming up with Lewis CIne to assemble a historic Georgia defense and leading the ‘Dawgs past Alabama.

Dean was such a world-beater by that point that none of those things seemed out of his reach.

And they were not.

He had been accepted into Stanford and had a vertical leap of more than 40 inches. He did not miss classes because he wanted that exemption status for his high school finals.

The Nakobe Dean resume is chock-full of such things. It starts with coming from good stock. His father’s studies led him to become a doctor.

His mother, Neketta, has been an absolute North Star to achievement. She was the salutatorian of her class and then served in our nation’s military.

Neketta had shaped his life into the success story it was back then. It will still read like that today.

“It is hard to put into words how much of an impact she has had on my life,” Nakobe Dean said back before he enrolled at Georgia. “Not only with what she has done but how her life has gone and how she has carried things that might have been too tough for her. Just how she has raised me and my brother and my sister by herself.”

“That has a big impact on me. She has been a great role model. The best role model.”

Nakobe Dean (left) and his mother Neketta Dean have a very strong relationship. (Neketta Dean/Special)

Nakobe and Neketta Dean: One special relationship

When the parents of the Georgia football team interacted with Neketta over the years, they have always been impressed.

There were those early road trips to SEC towns. Or holiday gatherings in Atlanta. She was kind, vibrant and intensely competitive. Do not try to keep up with her in board games.

They had already seen what Nakobe can do on the field and when met his mother, it all made sense.

Apple. Tree. This one fell at the base of the trunk.

There’s a specific moment worth sharing. It would open up with a closed door and the sound of tears. That would be a muffled cry.

The camera would then pan down to the floor.

It would find a one-year-old hand and five fingers. Snaking below the bathroom door.

That hand was there to provide comfort.

“I just remember going through a phase in my life prior to my divorce,” Neketta told DawgNation back in 2018. “Because when I divorced Nakobe was only one year old. I can remember being in the bathroom on the other side of the door. The door was closed because I didn’t want [her children] to see me cry.”

“I just remember him reaching his hand under the door to just touch me. Do you know? He would stay on the other side of that door and not move and would literally fall asleep on the other side of the door and did not leave me. He just stayed there.”

“And he was just a year old. Almost two. But he knew that his mom was not happy.”

That came at a time in his life when his parents were going through their divorce.

“It was just a bad time for me with depression and going through that divorce and I never wanted them to see me cry,” Neketta Dean said.

Neketta described her son as a “tough teddy bear” at a very young age. He would do that a lot.

“He was like my little protector in his own kind of way,” she said.

They called themselves “Team Dean” then. They felt very much alone. Nakobe would tell her he was going to invent something to make their lives better.

“He’s given me several of those moments,” she said.

If anyone was to call him a “Mama’s Boy” growing up, he’d consider it a compliment.

“She is definitely stronger than me,” Nakobe Dean said back then. “I don’t think I could have gone through some of the real struggles she has gone through in her life.”

His parents met while they were both in the military. The discipline that Nakobe applies to his academic coursework is a reflection of the time they both spent serving our country.

Neketta was the Salutatorian of her class in high school. When her son made the National Honor Society, she pulled out her certificate. Those two documents wound up on the wall together.

“I told him that ‘just so you know you get that from your momma’ when he looks at that,” she said back then.

She has always called him “Kobe” coming up. She still does.

There was an autograph session scheduled for Dean last season. It was in the middle of the title run. But Dean had received that All State Good Works honor and needed to be back home to present a local organization with a check.

Dean chose to give back over that autograph session. He traveled back to Mississippi to present the Hope Community Center with that $10,000 check from the Good Works team.

As he moved forward, he wanted to reach back home when he could. The Dean family remembered the local boys and girls clubs they needed growing up. It was in a neighboring county. Not in Horn Lakes where they are from.

“We saw that the Hope Center was doing things in our community which is what we missed out on when ‘Kobe’ was really young and he was growing up,” she said back in October. “We know the importance of children having activities and not being left at home and not having that idle time available.”

They wanted to see those monies go to after-school programs in their local community.

National champion LB and two-time Butkus Award winner Nakobe Dean is one of 14 likely Georgia football candidates for the 2022 NFL Draft later this month. (Jeff Sentell / DawgNation)
Jeff Sentell, Dawgnation

The honor roll for national champion Nakobe Dean

The 2022 NFL Draft prospect won the high school version of The Butkus Award in 2018. Then he completed a rare matching set by adding the college version of the sport’s top individual honor for a linebacker in 2021.

He was named captain of the 30th annual All State GoodWorks Team back in December. Dean was one of the 22 players selected for the 2021 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team. That honor recognizes college athletes for their commitment to community service.

“Nakobe is an exceptional example of what it means to be a well-rounded student-athlete who makes time to give back,” Bulldog head coach Kirby Smart said then. “It is an outstanding honor to be named captain of the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team and I believe that there could be no better person named to fill that spot than Nakobe.”

Dean was voted onto the 22-man team and then elevated to captain. It traced his community service efforts with Dawgs for Pups, a program Dean helped launch to directly support the youth community in the Athens Clarke-County region. The program had raised more than $200,000 as of last December. It helped secure 27,000 pounds of food donations and clothing for local children, among other area contributions.

When Smart used the term “well-rounded” to describe Dean, he nailed it.

Whatever arena or realm he steps into, he will stand out. That should not change on Sundays in the NFL.

That off-the-field resume was highlighted recently by his selection from 10 finalists and more than 1,000 nominees as the 2022 Arthur Ashe Jr. Male Sports Scholar. That came after a nationwide selection process out of nearly 1,000 nominees by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

The Ashe Award is especially impressive as that group’s charter seeks out outstanding sportsmen with the conviction and character to stand out in all walks of life.

National Champion. All-American. Butkus Award. Arthur Ashe. Dean has established a history of picking up these honors on and off the field so far as an athlete.

“This year had reminded me so much of his senior year in high school,” she told DawgNation last fall. “Just on a different level. It was back then with them with the possibility of winning the state championship in high school and now we are on this road again. It is a much higher level, but it feels like the same road again. The heart-pumping moments and the adrenaline rushes at the games. You take one week at a time and the hopes keep rising.”

It is hard to think of his beginnings as a Bulldog now. The Dean family didn’t really have the best official visit to Georgia. They weren’t made to feel like a true priority on the trip.

But that didn’t really matter to Dean. He didn’t need that.

He needed to play for a great program, a great defense and to be developed for the NFL. But that was only part of the package. He also wanted to major in engineering and be challenged by a rigorous academic curriculum.

The Mississippi native found all that at Georgia. Even if he didn’t know he was going to be a Bulldog until maybe an hour at the most before he shared his college decision live on ESPN with the world.

Dean had to leave Mississippi and drive through Alabama to get to Georgia. He had to find the reasons to extend his college move past the clear dynasty of the past 15 years in college football. The academic side of things has always mattered to Dean.

A recent Georgia press release touted his 3.53 GPA in mechanical engineering and was named to the CoSIDA Academic All-District team. That is a very challenging major.

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ADDS PLAYER NAMESUniversity of Georgia football player Nakobe Dean interacts with fans during the Dawg Walk as part of the team’s celebration parade in Athens, Georgia on January 15th, 2022.(Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Going to be very hard to find another Nakobe Dean

Georgia deployed Roquan Smith for the 2017 season. He received The Butkus as the best LB in college football in Smart’s second season. The Bulldogs had the good fortune to unleash Dean in Smart’s sixth season in 2021.

That’s a credit to inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann for his work elevating their play at the college level to a plum first-round prospect in the NFL Draft.

When colleges notice prep linebackers of real merit these days, they want to find an elite processor for the inside linebacker position.

When they seek to find the next Dean, they need to find a genius processor. There are so many examples in his UGA career. Take that play in that national championship game when he lit into teammate Channing Tindall for a missed assignment on a goal-line play.

Tindall recognized his mistake and responded with a red zone sack of Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young on the very next play. It seemed like he had a play like that every week.

There was the ‘Pick-6′ against Florida and the read-and-react where he caught a speedy Michigan back for a one-yard gain on a play that should have gone for at least 20-25 yards.

Any chronicle of Dean’s accolades will often feel like a victory lap. And it has been this way for some time. He picked up the Franklin D. Waters Award shortly after he arrived at UGA.

The Watkins Award is presented by the National Alliance of African-American Athletes. That group was founded in 1989 to empower African American males through athletics, education and public programs.

He never made a “B” in high school. The last school subject he received a “B” in prior to that was a middle school typing class. His high school coach pointed to Dean’s thick fingers as a cause for that.

The honors just stacked up in high school. He was named a 5-star LB, ranked as the nation’s top ILB, selected to the USA Today All-USA first team and was honored as the National Lineman of the Year by The Atlanta Touchdown Club.

He also led Horn Lakes to a 15-0 state championship season with 175 tackles, 26 tackles for loss and seven sacks as a senior. Dean also ran for nine TDs as a running back. He had 438 total tackles in his prep career, including a whopping 317 stops as a junior and senior.

No wonder Neketta said it all felt like deja vu.

“This has just been amazing,” she said at the national championship celebration on January 15. “The excitement has just been overboard. Amazing. It makes it hard to go to sleep. It is like when are we all going to come down from this.”

Dean had a vision board for all of these things. But he probably needed a bigger board.

“You want to talk about him and Lewis at the Under Armour All-American game,” she said. “About winning championships and beating Alabama. You’re talking about pure manifestation. They did what they said they were going to do at Georgia.”

“Kobe just smiles about all of this. He says he just has to thank God. He thanks God for all of it. Says all praise and glory to God.”

Her favorite game was the national championship. It had to be. It was the only game that ever made this very strong woman cry.

“Georgia was worth it,” she said at the national championship celebration. “All the time. It has been worth it. Even all those seven-plus hours drives to see him. I’ve never missed a game. Where ever they went to go play, I was there.”

Have you subscribed to the DawgNation YouTube channel yet? If so, you will be able to see special 1-on-1 content with UGA names like Jake Fromm, Gunner Stockon and Brock Vandagriff here.

Nakobe Dean: What the talking heads are saying about his NFL Draft stock

The consensus All-American had 72 tackles in 2021. That was one shy of Lewis Cine for the team lead. He did lead the Bulldogs with his 10.5 tackles for losses and added 31 QB pressures, 6.0 sacks, six PBUs and two interceptions.

The NFL Draft buzz on him started off very high. Here was this highly-accomplished and cerebral linebacker that passed every eye test in college. The film was just gold. That’s what you want to hand $20 million dollars to and say go make plays at the center of our defense.

Yet there has been discussion about a few elite of his game. His height isn’t the prototype. Dean didn’t run at the NFL combine. It was due to a training injury. When he worked out at Georgia’s Pro Day, he was limited by a torn pectoral muscle.

Dean didn’t look himself. Just like a strong NFL draft prospect. Not Nakobe Dean. There has been a smattering of projections of late that have him going anywhere from the last 15 picks of the draft to falling to the second round.

The New England Patriots were slated as a perfect fit by ESPN NFL Draft analyst Todd McShay. McShay said he was ready to die on the Dean hill recently. He knows he has him rated higher than most analysts as one of his clear top 20 picks of the draft. He called him a clear Bill Belichick type of player.

Teams should pass on him at their peril. There’s a very short list of NFL prospects that won the Butkus twice, won a state championship and a national championship. Dean was a consensus All-American in high school and college and then has the brilliant off-the-field reputation that Dean has.

He’s a certified winner. The team that looks to his career in totality and not the last two months of scouts doing what they are paid to do will get a 10-year pro that will succeed at a very high level.

DawgNation’s Mike Griffith and Connor Riley broke down Dean’s wares at UGA and his NFL Draft projections below.

‘Dawgs in the NFL Draft

(check on the recent reads on DawgNation.com)

SENTELL’S INTEL

(check on the recent reads on DawgNation.com)

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