By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – To be sure, Robert Nkemdiche felt the bull’s-eye on his back early in 2013. Nothing less would be expected for a signee of his profile.
He drew the attention of opponents and didn’t always respond in the best manner.
Now the nation’s No. 1 recruit looks back on his freshman season at Ole Miss with mixed reviews and looks ahead to his sophomore season with excitement.
“The freshman class, we had some good recruits. For us, it’s just growing and growing, and I feel like some other teams around the conference lost some of their key players. I feel like it’s our turn to take over and do great things,” he said.
Nkemdiche is a full-time defensive tackle, a move that took place at the end of last year. He’s listed at 6-foot-4, 277 pounds, and his quickness off the ball is one reason Ole Miss coaches believe he’s poised for bigger things.
“Robert is really coming on fast,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said.
It’s not like his first year was a bust. He had 32 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three sacks. He pressured the quarterback and batted down passes. He ran with the football on a fake punt in his first college game and as a running back in the last regular- season game.
It all added up to freshman All-America honors and a spot on the SEC’s all-freshman team.
“I feel like I could have done better,” he says.
Others in his signing class did. Offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil and tight end Evan Engram made All-SEC teams that did not include a freshman designation. Both were second-team selections by the Associated Press.
Nkemdiche’s year included a hamstring injury that cost him to miss most of three games, then an ejection in his first game back for shoving an Arkansas player.
“There were times I got double-teamed, triple-teamed. They would try to come at me with different things, get me out of the game. It was more than what I expected. It’s a crazy game out there,” he said.
His year also included a position change, a move away from defensive end which was not totally unexpected.
“I just have to keep my head in the game and not react to stupid things. Last year I had a couple of instances where I let my emotions get the best of me, but next year I will control that more and play football,” Nkemdiche said.
There was news off the field, too. Earlier this year a civil lawsuit was filed against Nkemdiche, and his brother, Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, for their alleged roles in a fight outside a fraternity house a year ago.
Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork and Hugh Freeze immediately came out in support of the brothers, a stance based on an investigation by University Police after the incident that turned up no evidence against them.
Robert Nkemdiche says the lawsuit is not a distraction.
“It’s not. I’m just playing football right now.”
He looks forward to Denzel Nkemdiche playing football with him again. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze announced the suspension of the older brother following his February arrest on charges of disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct.
“His spirits are coming up. He’s laying low, working out, doing his thing. I’m happy for him. He’ll be back out here, and he won’t miss a beat,” Nkemdiche said.