Ole Miss freshman defensive end Robert Nkemdiche was the crown jewel for the Rebels’ 2013 recruiting class, and the nation’s top recruit is on the lovely Oxford campus, ready to live up to the lofty expectations that preceded his arrival.
Nkemdiche joins a group of defensive ends led by C.J. Johnson, who is in store for a breakout season after pacing the team with 6.5 sacks in 2012. Also in the group are Carlos Thompson, Cameron Whigham and former top recruit Channing Ward. Fall camp begins Aug. 2 and you can bet that by Aug. 3, Nkemdiche will be starting opposite Johnson at the other end position.
At 6-foot-5 and 285-pounds, Nkemdiche has the size to be a versatile weapon along the defensive line when the Rebels line up in 4-3 and 3-4 alignments this season as they stray from the base 4-2-5 defense. As a 4-3 base end, he has the speed to be an effective pass-rusher off the edge and can kick inside on nickel downs and allow Whigham, Thompson or a healthy Ward to provide more speed off the perimeter.
Combined with All-SEC freshman nose tackle Isaac Gross, defensive tackles Byron Bennett and top JUCO DT Lavon Hooks, the Rebels have some depth along the defensive line that simply didn’t exist last season.
In a three-man front Nkemdiche is stout enough at the point of attack to hold up in the run game and strong enough to split the double team. His skill-set and versatility is something that Ole Miss did not have last season and is something that defensive line coach Chris Kiffin will enjoy like a kid opening up a shiny new toy on Christmas morning.
The player Nkemdiche has been compared to the most is another former top recruit, Jadeveon Clowney, who had eight sacks as a freshman at South Carolina in 2011. I would set that as the benchmark for Nkemdiche. That mark would have been 1.5 more than the team leader had last season, which should speak to the high expectations bestowed upon him.
In comments made to Kipp Adams of ESPN.com’s Recruiting Nation he’s not backing away from them.
“We can probably go to a national championship … I know that is a big goal but I feel like with our class, we can come in and can help out what I think is a solid defense already and as a really good team overall we can work toward that common goal. I feel if we can come together like people say we can, we are going to be really successful.”
Nkemdiche has star power and has already helped Ole Miss off the field in steering recruits to Oxford, and he will help them on the field this season and be a player who has the fans at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in awe from the moment he steps on the field.
Most freshmen are brought along slowly as coaches let them get their feet wet before they are thrust into the starting lineup, but Nkemdiche is unlike most freshmen, and that’s what makes him so special.