HIGHLAND, Kan. — The unglamorous final chapter of Jahkeem Green’s decidedly unglamorous journey from Sumter, South Carolina, to Power Five conference football is taking place here, in a place he never expected to be as he prepares to play for a school he never expected to attend.
Despite the odd circumstances, Green, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound defensive lineman who starred for two years at Highland Community College in this town of 1,000 and verbally committed to Nebraska for the 2019 season last month after attending NU’s Red-White Spring Game, is upbeat.
Green smiles easily and moves up and down the Scotties’ sideline Tuesday afternoon as the school’s own “spring game” plays out on a neatly manicured field in front of him, laughing and joking with his now-former teammates, chatting with staff and a reporter in between.
“I miss putting the pads on,” he said.
Indeed, his days of fighting for a spot on Aaron Arnold’s team are over. Green’s already conquered that challenge, arriving from South Carolina out of high school and starting for Highland immediately — “most guys really can’t do that in this league,” Arnold says.
Green could. He racked up 49 tackles his freshman year and 67 his sophomore year to go along with seven tackles for loss and 2½ sacks, garnering offers from all over the country.
“He’s a future NFL starter. Trust me,” said sophomore cornerback Brian George, whom the Huskers and many others have also offered and who had coaches from Georgia and Arkansas on hand to watch on this day. “He’s a guy. He’s big, obviously, he’s huge. He’s good, fast and just a freak athlete. They got a good one coming up there.”
Now, the tasks standing between Green and officially becoming a Husker play out in the low-slung brick apartment building that’s just across North Elmira Street from Highland’s west end zone. That’s where he lives in a three-bedroom apartment with his now-former teammates and where he’s working to graduate and meet the Division I qualifications that will allow him to move to Lincoln and become a student at UNL and — if all goes according to plan — a difference-making defensive lineman for head coach Scott Frost and company this fall.
Green just wrapped up the spring semester — today is the Scotties’ last football practice of the spring before summer hits — and has one more class to take online this summer before coming to Lincoln, likely in July.
“For me, it’s just school, working out, studying and Fortnite,” Green said. “Ain’t nothing to do out here on the weekends. A lot of the football team’s from down south, but everybody else is really from Kansas. On the weekend, everybody’s gone except the football team.”
Neither he nor Arnold have much doubt that he’ll get done what he needs to.
“He loves football and he’s a great kid,” Arnold said. “I’m glad he’s going to Nebraska because I think that’s a program that does things the right way and ‘Keem’ is a guy that does things the right way. He’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever had here, not just because he’s talented but because he does things the right way and football is really important to him.
“He’s a mature kid, he’s a responsible kid, and you get some guys like that in your program and it can make a difference for you.”
It would also be a long time coming for Green, who grew up in South Carolina dreaming of playing big-time college football. He was a nonqualifier out of Sumter, though, leaving junior college as his only route.
“I didn’t even know about juco, to be honest, until late last minute when I knew I had to go juco,” Green said. “That was really my only opportunity at the time because I didn’t have the grades. So it was just, 'Sign here.’”
As Green prepared to leave his hometown and trek more than 1,000 miles to, frankly, the middle of nowhere, his head coach Mark Barnes measured the stakes in plain terms.
“I told him that he’d either be back here in a week or he’d have a chance to play on Sundays. There wasn’t any in between with him,” Barnes told the Journal Star this week.
“I just had to grow up,” Green said. “Being out here, it’ll let you know if you really love football or if you’d rather go out and have fun somewhere.”
Arnold says it took trust both ways, from the staff that Green really wanted to work and from Green that the staff could help him stay on the right path.
“I think he’ll be our 19th guy to (qualify for Division I) this year,” Arnold said. “Almost all those guys were nonqualifiers out of high school. Most of our guys here are not (Division I) bounce-backs. Most we’ve brought out of high school and developed from the ground up. It’s what we do.”
This spring, NU running backs coach Ryan Held decided the Huskers had enough confidence in Green to offer him a scholarship. A technicality with his math class — he’s taking a class online through a third party — keeps him from being eligible to play for an SEC school, though many checked in on him. A year ago this time, Alabama and South Carolina and Tennessee and many others flocked to this field to recruit Green.
Now, Nebraska is the one left standing, believing firmly that he’ll be eligible to play this season instead of waiting another. If that happens, there will be some level of credit due all around.
Most of it, though, will go to Green for taking an unconventional route fraught with potholes and spots where it could all go wrong.
“Keem just came here and did whatever we asked him to do,” Arnold said. “Worked hard every day and he’s a testament to what can happen if you just show up, listen to your coaches and work really hard. I think people want to make it really complicated, but it’s not.”