There’s a lot at stake in the Ole Miss versus Alabama football game on Saturday night. Not only is it two undefeated and ranked opponents squaring off in a classic SEC West slug match, it sets the tone for both teams as they enter the meat of their schedules. Needless to say, with two teams as talented as this, there’s inevitably a ton of NFL Draft talent involved. Both teams, ‘Bama especially, have their share of talented prospects, many of whom are still in the process of building their draft resumes.
So who’s the 2014 NFL Draft prospect to really keep an eye on in the Rebels/Tide match up? This is a tough question, and there’s a lot of right answers. In my gut though, I’d have to go with Cyrus Kouandjio versus the Ole Miss defensive line, particularly the ends.
Kouandjio entered the season as a likely top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, and through three games, he’s worth it. In the Tide’s first game versus Virginia Tech, Kouandjio looked sluggish going against a quick and athletic Hokie front four. Heck, the entire offensive line looked sluggish against the Hokies. Along comes Texas A&M, and while the Aggies offense gave Nick Saban fits, their defense was pummeled by ‘Bama, especially along the line. Who Kouandjio will be going against this weekend is more like VA Tech and less like A&M.
The Ole Miss front four is incredibly quick and athletic, even more so than the Hokies. Junior DE CJ Johnson, a former five-star linebacker, and true freshman DE Robert Nkemdiche, the number one player in the country last year, make up a formidable tandem. Johnson is a lightning quick ‘LEO’-type pass rusher, while the burly Nkemdiche is practically synonymous with ‘power’. Through the Rebels first three games, they’ve combined for 19 tackles and 8 TFLs.
Needless to say, Kouandjio is going to have his hands full going against two completely different players. Kouandjio (6-foot 6, 310-pounds) wins the size battle against Johnson (6-foot 3, 233-pounds) and Nkemdiche (6-foot 4, 295-pounds), but gives up a ton of quickness to the former and is a wash in terms of strength with the latter.
One major thing Kouandjio has going for him is experience and the fact the game is in Tuscaloosa. He and Johnson were the same recruiting year, but while Johnson has been battling team ineptitude and injuries, Kouandjio was starting on one of the greatest offensive lines of the last decade and winning National Championships. Nkemdiche, no matter how touted he’s been the last few years, still hasn’t ever gone against a tackle with the talent of Kouandjio.
It won’t just be Johnson and Nkemdiche that Kouandjio will be facing on Saturday. The Rebels rotate their defensive linemen often, and backups Channing Ward, Carlos Thompson and Cameron Whigham all have intriguing pass-rushing capabilities, and all are fresh coming off a bye week.
What do I honestly expect from Kouandjio versus Ole Miss? I expect him to win the majority of his battles. I’ve scouted him extensively and he’s for real. It also helps that he’s playing alongside the best football team in the country. And yes, I think Alabama will win, despite this being the most talented Ole Miss squad in a few years.
But I’m also expecting one heck of a fighting effort from the Rebels, and particularly the Rebs defensive line. The thunder and lightning combination of Johnson and Nkemdiche could menace the Tides offensive backfield enough to rattle QB AJ McCarron and co. into turnovers and mistakes, which could eventually lead to a shocking upset. It’s a longshot, but it’s also a possibility.
Kouandjio isn’t playing for his professional life in this game. If he has a bad game, he’ll still more than likely go top 10. But this will be one of the most talented tandems of pass rushers Kouandjio will face all season, and it’s a test everyone is waiting to watch. Especially NFL personnel men.