By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – It had not reached the point that introductions were necessary, but it was close.
Three important elements to the Ole Miss defense have had sporadic availability this season due to injuries.
Mike Hilton and the Nkemdiche brothers, Robert and Denzel, were all at practice this week, and that was good news for Dave Wommack, the Rebels’ defensive coordinator, as he worked to put in a plan to slow down the Arkansas run game.
“They’ve been gone a long time. Denzel’s been hurt off and on, and Robert’s been out it seems like four weeks when you add in the open date,” Wommack said. “Mike Hilton, he’s one of our best players in my opinion. Those guys make a difference for us, and they’ll make us a better football team having them out there.”
Robert Nkemdiche, last year’s national No. 1 recruit, started six games – five at defensive end and one at tackle – before straining a hamstring while chasing Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
In his absence junior defensive tackle Bryon Bennett moved out to end, and it appears Bennett will stay there. Nkemdiche worked at tackle during the week.
Nkemdiche’s physicality and athleticism inside should be an asset in slowing down a productive Razorbacks run game. Led by freshman Alex Collins, Arkansas is third in the league with 211.2 rushing yards a game.
That average dips a little bit against SEC foes. Arkansas is 0-5 in conference play but is still rushing for 183.6 yards a game and gained 222 on the ground in last week’s 35-17 loss to Auburn.
Eager for challenge
“We all like that, that tough run-the-ball offense,” Denzel Nkemdiche said. “We’re into that.”
Denzel Nkemdiche missed time early in the season with a knee sprain and was held out of the Idaho game with a sprained ankle.
He’s a sure tackler when healthy, as is Hilton, who was the starter at Huskie – the Rebels’ hybrid safety position that plays near the line of scrimmage for run support – before moving to corner. He’s also taken on special assignments like serving as the “spy” on Manziel against Texas A&M.
Conditioning is a concern when players have been out a while, particularly for Robert Nkemdiche, whose hamstring needed to heal before he could resume a running program.
Denzel Nkemdiche said he worked to keep his younger brother encouraged while he was disappointed by his time away.
“He understands life and knows things happen for a reason,” Denzel Nkemdiche said. “It was a humbling moment for him. He matured a little bit through that, got to sit back and watch. Now he’ll take advantage of that on the field.”