By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Robert Nkemdiche has heard his football talent praised until he’s numb.
It means nothing, he says, unless accompanied by the proper work ethic. That’s what it takes to go from good to great, from great to unique.
Ole Miss coaches and players held their campus media day activities. Practice begins this morning amid high expectations for the coming season. Earlier this week the Rebels, 8-5 a year ago in Hugh Freeze’s second year as coach, were ranked No. 19 in the coaches’ poll.
Nkemdiche was the nation’s No. 1 recruit and the centerpiece of the Rebels’ heralded 2013 recruiting class. He wasn’t the most productive of the freshmen last year, however.
Nkemdiche made the SEC’s all-freshman team and was named freshman All-America, but he missed most of three games with a hamstring injury and was asked to change positions as he moved from end to tackle late in the season.
Having spent an entire spring at tackle and heading into camp at the same position is immensely helpful, he says.
“It’s a big difference. People don’t know how it is learning one whole playbook from the day you stepped in until mid-year and then having to alter that,” Nkemdiche said. “My head was spinning. Now I’ve calmed down. I know my position, and I know I can dominate at the position.”
Georgia Tech glimpsed that dominance when Nkemdiche had five tackles in three quarters in the Music City Bowl and snuffed the Yellow Jackets’ potent run game to his side.
That game was a confidence boost, but more has come from off-season work, he says.
“Football’s not about being talented,” Nkemdiche said.
“It’s about putting in the work and grinding it out. That’s how you get good.”
That daily approach is what Freeze wants from more of his players. With back-to-back bowl wins in his first two seasons “buy-in” – the players’ complete acceptance of his leadership style – was still a big part of his address Friday.
“Going into Year 3, they understand what the non-negotiables are. We’re going to have a great attitude, and we’re going to practice with great effort,” he said. “You’re not going to be perfect on every play, but you can have perfect effort. Those will be the expectations throughout camp.”
Jack of all trades
Nkemdiche finished his first season with 34 tackles, eight tackles for loss and two sacks. He was occasionally used on offense and special teams.
In his first college game he carried a fake punt for a first down at Vanderbilt. He was a powerful running back against Mississippi State.
“He’s truly blessed by God,” says Issac Gross, who will line up at nose tackle next to Nkemdiche. “He has everything a player like me wishes for and dreams about, his size, the way he moves, his skill level.”
That assessment by peers has been a common theme through Nkemdiche’s career. He appreciates the thought but is not content to rely on his gifts.
He wants to do all he can to live up to his recruiting coverage.
“Of course I have God-given ability. Everybody knows that. I’m fast, I’m super strong, but actually putting that into the technique of football is what I’ve done this past off-season,” he said. “I’ve turned my athletic ability into football ability. That’s what I’m confident about.”