By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – It wasn’t like C.J. Johnson was having a bad half of football himself.
During a timeout, though, when the Ole Miss defense was catching its breath on a very humid night, when defensive line coach Chris Kiffin was attempting to use precious seconds to get across his message, Johnson also had one to deliver.
“Man, Denzel is balling out there,” he said.
“I said, ‘Why you worried about that right now?’” Kiffin recalled. “It was pretty neat. The players really noticed Denzel out there.”
Denzel Nkemdiche, an under-sized linebacker for the Rebels, is someone you would have to make an effort to notice if he wasn’t simply around the ball all the time.
That’s the way it played out in his first college game. Nkemdiche, all 5-foot-10 and 203 pounds, made his first college start and finished with eight tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack in the Rebels’ 49-27 season-opening win over Central Arkansas.
Before Saturday, Nkemdiche, a late addition to the 2011 signing class, was best known as being the older brother of Robert Nkemdiche of Loganville, Ga., a defensive lineman and the nation’s No. 1 recruit.
He may be about to build his own level of fame.
“I felt like I did everything the coaches told me to do. Everything played out perfect, and I did my job. I played great,” Nkemdiche said.
For Nkemdiche, his first college game was not unlike most of his high school games when he spent much of his time in the opponent’s backfield. He had 18 tackles for loss, eight sacks and returned three interceptions for touchdowns as a senior defensive back.
The secondary is where his college career began, and the new 4-2-5 scheme, which helps get more speed on the field, is a good fit for Nkemdiche.
A real fireball
He made a late push in camp to pass senior Aaron Garbutt for the starting job at what defensive coordinator Dave Wommack calls the “stinger” position.
Friendly and an easy talker, the media guide describes Nkemdiche as “a fireball of energy.” An apt description.
“It’s probably not good for him to be around me all day. I was pretty jacked up myself,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “He only played about 30 plays, because he had to have an IV, just emotionally drained. He’s settled down a lot now, getting that first one under his belt.”
Freeze cited Nkemdiche as an example of young players and the roles they will fill on this year’s team.
“It was my first college game. There was a lot to take in, and there were a lot of emotions coming out,” Nkemdiche said.
Nkemdiche’s verbal skills made him an easy choice to make the calls for the defense and get player aligned correctly. They make him a big hit on Twitter, too, where he’s known to interact with Ole Miss fans.
“I got a lot of encouragement. A lot of people were saying that all the hard work has paid off, just keep working hard. I just take it as motivation and support, and it’s something that I feed off of,” he said.
Ole Miss coaches are hoping to see Nkemdiche build off his first college game when UTEP visits Saturday night.
“His heart weighs more than 203 pounds, I’ll promise you that,” Kiffin said. “For a redshirt freshman, he studies and studies. He’s really impressed us a defensive staff.”