Robert Nkemdiche. Not only is that Verne-inhibiting name scary from the standpoint of spelling and pronunciation, but it also happens to be the name of fear for SEC quarterbacks who must find a way to keep the freakishly athletic Ole Miss defensive tackle in check this season.
Who in the heck is Robert Nkemdiche (pronounced "kim-Dee-chee")? Well if you don't know by now, you most certainly have taken up domicile beneath some rock formation or other. The highly-touted number 1 recruit (consensus) of the 2013 signing class had strongly considered a tenure at the Capstone before spurning Alabama to join his brother, linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, on the other side of the state line in Oxford. Certainly, we've all heard the story of how his heart was with Bama, but under substantial pressure from his family members, he decided blood was thicker than crystal in a Kouandjio-karma-redux.
Recruiting drama aside, there's good reason that the younger Nkemdiche was so highly coveted. The 6'4", now-280 pound behemoth has size and athleticism that in recent memory can only be matched by South Carolina (sometimes) player Jadeveon Clowney, now with the NFL's Houston Texans. In his freshman season, Nkemdiche (who wears number five) proved he was indeed a man among boys physically, though it took some time for the defender to settle into the college game...and all of the hype that goes alongside it.
Now a sophomore, Nkemdiche is up to speed, and he is part of a Rebel defense that statistically finds itself in the top 5 nationally. Sure, the Ole Miss defense is loaded. I could have selected any one of a handful of players to represent the best that the Rebel D will put on the field against Bama in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday afternoon. But Nkemdiche is a special kind of freak, and against Bama, he could be the drop that causes the dam to break in favor of the oft-ill-fated Rebels, a team with only nine wins against Bama in the history of the series.
Who in the heck is Robert Nkemdiche?
In a word, he is a nightmare. He haunts the dreams of SEC offensive linemen. He is Grendel wrapped up in the body of Adonis, a physical specimen in both his size, his fitness and his muscle mass. At 6'4" and 280 pounds of lean muscle, it's easy to see why the Ole Miss defensive staff moved him to the tackle position after initially giving him a look at end. Coming out of Grayson High School in Loganville, GA, Nkemdiche was the most coveted defensive prospect since Clowney, and his presence is similarly being felt across the conference.
Looking at Nkemdiche, it is hard to wrap one's head around the fact that he only just turned 20 years old. Nkemdiche came in a little heavier than his current weight in his initial 2013 campaign, weighing in at about 300 pounds at the start of fall camp. But don't let that weight fool you, as teammates said that from the start, they were in awe of the young player' physicality.
Defensive end C.J. Johnson said he was simply amazed by Nkemdiche.
"I've never seen anybody who's 295 pounds, and they can breathe and you can see every ab that he has...It's unreal...(this season) He looks way different...He's going to be hard to block. I don't know if one person is going to be able to block him. He's just so freakishly big and strong and fast. It's really hard to put it into perspective how good he's going to be."
Fellow 2013 blue-chipper, Ole Miss sophomore left tackle Laremy Tunsil said Nkemdiche left quite the impression during their initial meetings on the practice field.
"When I say he bull-rushed me, oh man...I felt all 310 [pounds] just coming at me, full of muscle, six-pack and everything. I was like, 'I see why he's No. 1.' I've never seen somebody so explosive coming off the ball in my life."
All of that physical talent began to come to fruition late last season, as Nkemdiche adapted to the pace of the game and the hype that had surrounded his coveting as a high school blue chip recruit. By season's end, the son of Nigerian-born parents appeared on nearly every freshman All-American and All-SEC squad put to paper. Nkemdiche played in 11 games last season for the Rebel defense, starting along the defensive line in 10 of them. As he became more comfortable with his role and the speed of the game, his stats began to improve. He was second on a solid Rebel defense with eight tackles for loss, in addition to recording 34 tackles (25 solo, nine assists), two sacks and two passes defended.
The performance (and quite frankly, his measurable) in 2013 was enough to propel Nkemdiche into the spotlight in 2014, as he was named to Lindy's and Athlon pre-season All-American rosters, and made damn near every All-SEC list (Athlon, Phil Steele, Birmingham News) as a first teamer. Coming into the season, he was rated as the nation's ninth ranked defensive tackle (Lindys) and the SEC's third ranked DT by espn.com.
Accolades are great and all, but has Nkemdiche proven on the field that he has an even better grasp of the Ole Miss defense in 2014? That point can be argued, but Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said since shaving weight, the tackle is even more dynamic than he was before.
"He looks good, I'm real pleased with where he's at right now, physically. Mentally, he seems to be doing well. ... There's no question when you look at him that he's ready physically."
In Nkemdiche's own words, the biggest difference for him in 2014 is not physical, but rather mental and emotional.
"I can play without my head spinning. Everything is so calm and easy for me to pick up, and that's why I'm going to have a really big year. ... I'm going to have a huge year this year, man -- I know it."
So far in 2014, Nkemdiche is still awaiting that breakout moment that will solidify his emergence into the pantheon of legendary SEC defensive linemen. In 2014, he has made seven tackles (three solo, four assists) with one sack. Not exactly what one would consider dominant stats at this point in the season, but it's only a matter of time before the defensive tackle emerges as one of the league's star defenders. It's not a matter of "if," but rather "when."
What to expect from Robert Nkemdiche against Alabama?
It would be wishful thinking to expect Nkemdiche to match his performance against Bama in 2014...at least for Bama fans. In the 2013 contest at Bryant Denny Stadium, Nkemdiche made his first start at the interior of the line, and the result was that Nkemdiche was shut-out statistically by the Alabama offensive line. That is not especially salient to this year's contest, given that only one of three players (Arie Kouandjio) from the offensive interior will return to battle Nkemdiche this season (Ryan Kelly was injured and was replaced against Ole Miss by the now-departed Chad Lindsay, and Anthony Steen has graduated). But it is worth noting that in their only encounter, Alabama's line found a way to hold the mighty Nkemdiche in check.
To assume the same would be true this year would be folly. Sure, Alabama's interior has an added year of seasoning, and some would argue Bama center Ryan Kelly (along with seasoned guard Arie Kouandjio) has the athleticism to battle Nkemdiche to stalemate. However, Alabama's line has struggled mightily at times against lesser defenses when running the ball between the tackles. The Tide line has a tendency to play too upright when run-blocking, thus ceding the center of gravity battle to the defense. To do so against a physical talent like Nkemdiche would be a mistake. In short, supposing that Bama's line will manhandle Nkemdiche and his cohorts represents a rather large logical leap, as this is as tough a unit as the Tide has faced to date.
Kouandjio may not contribute much in the pass defense of the Rebels, as Alabama's line does excel at pass blocking. Bama has the beef and scheme to keep Nkemdiche frustrated when rushing the passer, and if the Tide can execute that game plan, they could frustrate the tackle and force his emotions to overrule is outstanding physical talent and football IQ. Sure, he may record a sack here or there, but Bama's line has improved dramatically in protecting the quarterback (as evidenced by Sims' prolific passing performances in the last several weeks.)
That said, then again, there's this, from earlier this season against Boise...
Granted, Boise's line doesn't match Bama's in size, talent, girth, breadth, depth (ALL THE DESCRIPTORS!)...you get the idea. But you also get an idea of the kind of quicks the big man with the long last name brings to the table. He erupted through that line as though it was staffed with wet paper dolls, and was upon the QB the way a lion scales a Cape buffalo. Expect more resistance from Bama's hosses up front, but still, y'all...that's a scary prospect against an Alabama line that many have quietly had trouble trusting.
Against the run, expect the tackle to have a substantial impact. Bama's line has continued to have trouble making headway for their stable of talented backs on inside runs. Nkemdiche will be a big part of that continuing that trend, as he is as disruptive to the run game as any tackle the Tide has played to date. He is a big body with quickness and an aggressive streak, and will be hell to block regardless of who ultimately ends up with the unenviable task.
In other words, this isn't your daddy's Ole Miss defense. With players like Nkemdiche in the trenches, the Tide will have to field its best offensive line performance of the season in order to keep its balanced offensive attack on track. Nkemdiche will beg double teams, and devoting extra hats to the tackle will only make things easier for his cohorts.
Rest assured, Bama fans will see enough of the name Nkemdiche this weekend to last a whole year. Both Robert and his elder brother Denzel are stalwarts for an Ole Miss defense that appears to be the team's best unit in ages. Don't sleep on either Nkemdiche, as they are both aggressive talented defenders who will make things difficult for the Alabama offense.
For Robert Nkemdiche, it's not a matter of "if" he has a breakout performance in 2014, but rather "when." Bama fans should pray that the "when" is not this weekend.
(To see more of Nkemdiche in action, click here.)