He hadn’t earned complacency. That just gets you in trouble. But a returning starter, a senior, has to feel like he has a leg up on the competition.
The problem for Whigham is that this season’s competition is not natural.
Robert Nkemdiche was the top recruit in America last year and this month has played to the level of his recruiting media coverage – which is to say, substantially.
Whigham, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound defensive end from Snellville, Ga., not far from Nkemdiche’s Loganville, Ga., home, missed a few days with concussion symptoms, but that wouldn’t have mattered in this race.
Nkemdiche (6-5, 294) is physically prepared for the challenge that awaits him Thursday night at Vanderbilt.
As a freshman, he has unseated the senior Whigham for a starting job. How many freshmen across the country can say that?
“There are no hard feelings. I know we all have the same goal, to win. Coach feels like he is in that position to do it. I’m right with coach with whatever he decides,” says Whigham, noted for his play against the run. He had 27 tackles last year.
Whigham has accepted a role similar to Kurt Warner’s with the New York Giants during Eli Manning’s rookie season. He’s helping prepare his successor.
While Ole Miss coaches praise Nkemdiche’s physicality, Whigham says that will be the rookie’s biggest challenge in Game 1. It won’t be that Nkemdiche will be outmatched by anyone, but that he’ll need to understand quickly that he has to bring forth his full presence on every play.
“In high school he was the biggest person, but in college it’s not going to be the same anymore. He’s got to be physical and know the SEC is a tough league,” Whigham said.
Whigham the teacher will still be Whigham the player. Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack says he expects to play seven defensive ends.
“I think I’m a physical defensive end. I can play the run, and I’ve gotten better playing the pass as well, and this season’s going to show that,” Whigham said.
The only unanswered question for Nkemdiche is how he will respond when the lights come on, when he has to step around the ESPN cameras on the sidelines, that sort of thing. Ole Miss coaches are optimistic that he’ll transition as quickly through that change as he has with a new team and teammates.
Speaking of questions, the younger Nkemdiche has been kept away from the media this month. Expect that to change when ESPN mikes are thrust his way Thursday night.
“He’s like the No. 1 player in all the categories. I have no idea the stuff he goes through. I just have to help him anyway I can to step up to the next level,” Whigham said.
Parrish Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs at Djournal.com.