Mining Brooklyn or any of New York City’s five boroughs for football talent might seem akin to panning for gold in the Savannah River, yet Gus Cyrus knew he had a gem in Ebenezer Ogundeko.
“New York City’s more of a basketball town,” said Cyrus, the head football coach at Thomas Jefferson High in Brooklyn. “It took a while, but everybody knows us now.”
It’s been about a year since a video of Ogundeko’s highlights circulated to college coaches. Until then, he had no scholarship offers. After 79 tackles and 11 sacks as a junior at Jefferson, he reportedly considered transferring to a more visible school but decided to delay the decision until May.
Unmentioned by recruiting sites until February, he finished as this year’s top prospect in New York — the state, not the city — and today Clemson has him on campus. Coach Dabo Swinney said it was like winning the lottery.
“This guy has a great, great upside,” Swinney said. “The fact that he’s a mid-year guy and a very smart, bright young man, I think he’s going to be a really special addition to our football team.”
One of four members of Swinney’s fifth class to enroll early, Ogundeko was ranked 126th nationally in ESPN’s top 300. With safety Jadar Johnson, defensive end Shaq Lawson and tight end Jordan Leggett, he fit a critical need in what may evolve into another highly regarded class.
Most of the immediate needs were filled with the first 16 commitments. Swinney said he anticipated signing 21 to 24. The class is ranked 14th by ESPN and 26th by Rivals and Scout. Ogundeko and Lawson, another hometown product from Daniel High who spent a season in prep school, were among the highest regarded.
Finding Ogundeko — “Ebo” to his friends — served as a balm after a painful separation in Clemson’s relationship with Robert Nkemdiche, a defensive end universally considered the nation’s top prospect.
Nkemdiche, who played for Swinney’s college roommate at Grayson High in Loganville, Ga., committed to Clemson in June, but his mother encouraged him rethink the choice and tried to steer him to Ole Miss, where his brother is a player. The drama peaked in November, coincidental with Ogundeko’s emergence as a viable option.
Syracuse responded to the video first in February, followed by Connecticut, Rutgers and Arizona State. Ogundeko, listed 6-foot-4 and nearly 240 pounds, committed to UConn before a flood of inquiries reportedly including Florida, Oregon, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Nebraska. In March, The New York Post reported he had 13 offers, more than any prospect in the city.
Suddenly flush with options, he decided to delay his choice until after several visits including Oregon. After Clemson entered the picture during the season, he agreed to visit the weekend of the South Carolina game, less than three weeks after Nkemdiche recanted his commitment.
Planning to graduate from Jefferson a semester early, Ogundeko announced his choice on Jan. 4 at the Under-Armour All-American Game and was on Clemson’s campus within 10 days.
Swinney does not permit interviews with freshmen until after they play at least one game, and he denied a request to speak to recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott until signing day, but Cyrus was eager to discuss a young man he has known since coaching him on a youth team more than 10 years ago.
An offensive tackle initially, Ogundeko asked to try defensive end when he arrived at Jefferson, an historic school resurrected with a several magnet programs. Last year, he convinced Cyrus to play him some tight end. “I didn’t think he could catch,” Cyrus said.
In a league game last September, Ogundeko caught an 8-yard touchdown pass with 1:01 to play as Jefferson beat Canarsie, 26-18. Added Cyrus: “He made a play my receivers couldn’t make.”
“He refuses to lose,” Cyrus said, citing the game with New Utrecht in which Jefferson trailed by four touchdowns at halftime and won in overtime. “He told them, ‘We’re not going to lose this game.’ He turned it up another notch and destroyed the whole offense.”
“He’s an ambitious kid. You can’t tell him he can’t do it,” said Cyrus, who used him all over the field on defense. “Just teach him, and he’ll do it.
“He’ll practice two hours after everybody is gone.”
ESPN published an evaluation that described an instinctive, quick, athletic player with a thick, muscular build.
“He shows flashes as a pass rusher. Has a nice initial burst that allows him to quickly get up field,” the report said. “Because he is from the big city does not mean Ogundeko is raw. He shows flashes of doing the things he needs to do. Instead, it is more a matter of getting more polish and being more consistent in his technique.”
One of four Clemson recruits listed in ESPN’s top 150, Ogundeko could become one of the centerpieces in Swinney’s fifth class.
“I’m just looking for a good coaching staff to coach me and I’m looking for a family,” Ogundeko said in an interview last year with Zack Brasiller of The Post.
“I just think it’s a blessing,” he said of the swell in momentum. “I’ll stay humble and continue to work hard. All the offers won’t change anything.”