The team’s starting outside linebacker and previous season’s leading tackler, Denzel Nkemdiche, will be out the next four to six weeks after suffering a torn meniscus in Thursday night’s matchup with Vanderbilt in Nashville.
Nkemdiche underwent surgery to repair the injury early Saturday morning, and doctors say that his earliest return could come Sept. 28 against Alabama.
This is a devastating blow to Dave Wommack’s unit, one that only has two 2013 preseason All-SEC performers: third-teamer C.J. Johnson and current backup corner Charles Sawyer.
The Rebels should not miss the older brother of starting defensive end Robert Nkemdiche against Southeast Missouri State next Saturday at Vaught Hemingway, but they especially could’ve used him during the overbearing schedule that begins after that game.
Ole Miss travels to Texas, Alabama and Auburn in consecutive weeks, playing at Alabama for the second consecutive season on the road. Ole Miss’ only home game through their first five games is next week against Southeast Missouri State. If Hugh Freeze and the Rebels could get past this stretch, they don’t leave the state of Mississippi for their last seven games of the season.
It’s never a sure bet that you will be able to replace someone that collected 82 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and three interceptions in his freshman year. If Nkemdiche is unable to have a speedy recovery, the next two weeks after the big three-game stretch could see the LSU Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies coming into Oxford as major favorites.
However, Ole Miss should be equipped to beat one of those teams with linebacker Serderius Bryant taking Nkemdiche’s place. The defense is coming of a 46th rank in the nation in total defense in 2012, giving up right around 375 yards a game.
Where Ole Miss will lose out the most from the Nkemdiche injury is their run defense. Ole Miss has to contend with LSU, Alabama and A&M, which were all in the top-five last year in the SEC in that department.
Ole Miss gave up three rushing scores alone with Nkemdiche in the lineup Thursday night, while surrendering 426 total yards and 300 passing yards against a depleted Vanderbilt receiving crew. Nkemdiche had five total tackles in the 39-35 win. Nkemdiche played bigger when the stage was brighter last season, with 45 tackles in all of Ole Miss’s losses, 11 against Alabama.
Ole Miss also lost guard Aaron Morris, the team’s top returning lineman with 19 career starts, for the season due to a torn ACL.
The Rebels have all the talent to make a serious run at the SEC West crown with 18 returners besides Nkemdiche. Remember Rebels fans — one Nkemdiche is better than none.