The Ole Miss Rebels football team opens up the 2013 season against the Vanderbilt Commodores on the road tonight, with a drasticly different mindset than last season. The expectation factor is through the roof for Rebel supporters after a 2012 five-win improvement from the previous season. Head Rebel Hugh Freeze led Ole Miss to a 7-6 record in 2012, including sound defeats over rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
The Rebels believe with advancements over the summer made by quarterback Bo Wallace and heavy contributions by a top-10 signing class, they will be in contention for a shot at their first SEC Championship winner since 1963. Their first crash course to reach that as a program, comes in the shape of Vanderbilt on the road for their first SEC meeting in week one.
Vanderbilt’s starting lineup will feature 18 upperclassmen on both sides. Vanderbilt’s eight senior starters on defense will be the most senior-laden group of anybody this season, yet the Ole Miss defense isn’t young by any stretch, with only one starter playing in his first game. That’s freshman phenom Robert Nkemdiche, who will say hello to the rest of america that hasn’t already heard of his story-book career in Georgia high school football.
Tonight, it will take more than Vanderbilt’s senior offensive tackle Wesley Johnson to block the consensus No. 1 overall recruit and top defensive end in the nation in 2013. Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said that the freshman defensive end has warranted double-team blocks from almost every offensive lineman during the Rebels fall camp. Johnson brings much needed maturity, but there’s an obvious talent gap between both tonight. And forget it, James Franklin, there’s no way you will possibly chip him with your first-year starting running back Wesley Tate. The Rebels have even more pieces to make you pay with that sort of adjustment.
Ole Miss finished 2012 leading the SEC in tackles for loss, and also buzz-sawed teams with the 11th-most sacks in the nation. Nkemdiche’s brother, Denzel, was an All-SEC freshman leading the team in tackles, tallying 80 on the 2012 season. Much to the chagrin of SEC offensive coordinators, the other brother, Robert, has already been named as the league’s preseason newcomer of the year.
Vanderbilt returns four starters on the offensive line, going up against a battle tested Rebel defensive line. Defensive end C.J Johnson is one of Ole Miss’ 19 starters who led Ole Miss to a five-win improvement from the previous season in 2012. Starting defensive tackles Woodrow Hamilton and Byron Bennett could be spelled at any time in the game for JUCO-transfer Lavon Hooks or Isaac Gross. Freeze said that the team was lacking depth at defensive line, but this unit has became a major step up from what coaches once thought.
Nkemdiche will only benefit against Vanderbilt and later down the line this season with multiple experienced leaders that Rebels defensive line coach Chris Kiffin possesses. Needless to say, Nkemdiche would have dominated for Clemson at home against Georgia this weekend also.
Nkemdiche pledged to Clemson before his senior season at Grayson high. Everybody around the sport has compared him to the nation’s best player, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in this stage of his career. Nkemdiche, though, will be an even better finished product and run stopper in his freshman season than Clowney was in 2011.
Nkemdiche is an elite pass rusher for this point in his career, and breaking Ben Williams‘ school sack record of 37 should never be in doubt. It only took Nkemdiche four practices to be out in front at an end position, and it’s easy to see why with his incredible stiff physique at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, and premier skill set. Freeze said that Nkemdiche will not only start, but will get half of the snaps in the Vanderbilt game, a month before his 19th birthday.
Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and tight end Evan Engram will also appear tonight as true freshman starters.
Denzel Nkemdiche is a diamond in the rough for Ole Miss, but who knows how many carrots on the ring the other Nkemdiche will become.