Nkemdiche is ready to break out

Beginning Aug. 3, we're counting down the days until the college football season with a look at the 25 most interesting people in the sport.

OXFORD, Miss. -- On a steamy Saturday morning inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche is on the hunt.

It's early August, and the 6-foot-4, 280-pound mountain of a sophomore stalks a quarterback standing across from him. His movements are slow, menacing. He carefully walks to his left and finds space outside the line of scrimmage, never taking his eyes off his prey.

At the snap, Nkemdiche explodes toward the quarterback and shoves a helpless lineman to the ground. As soon as the pass is released, it finds a leaping Nkemdiche's hands before he slams to the ground.

Nkemdiche barely reacts as teammates congratulate him. He's waiting for his next victim.

"He looks good," coach Hugh Freeze said. "I'm real pleased with where he's at right now, physically. Mentally, he seems to be doing well. ... There's no question when you look at him that he's ready physically."

The former No. 1 recruit admits to drowning in practice at times last year. Smothered by hype, the perceived savior of Ole Miss' program saw less dominance and more mistakes.

But as Nkemdiche looks to the 2014 season, he smiles when talking about his transformation.

"I can play without my head spinning," Nkemdiche said. "Everything is so calm and easy for me to pick up, and that's why I'm going to have a really big year. ... I'm going to have a huge year this year, man -- I know it."

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When he got involved with football as a seventh-grader after seeing his brother Denzel play, Nkemdiche was a running back. But by the time he got to Grayson High School in Loganville, Georgia, a growth spurt moved him to defensive tackle.

Defensive line coach Lenny Gregory, who became his legal guardian in high school when his mother traveled back to her native Nigeria for work, sat him down and discussed his potential before working with him to craft his raw talent.

"He really made me see that I could be really good down the road at playing defensive line," Nkemdiche said. "He just kept working me, working me, and by the time I was a senior he was like, 'Hey, keep going with it, keep going with it.'"

Nkemdiche's appetite for winning fueled his progress. After playing a limited role as a freshman, he earned the first of three consecutive first-team All-State honors as a sophomore after compiling 19 sacks. As a junior, he won a state title and compiled 18 sacks and 17 rushing touchdowns.

Once his senior year arrived, he was ESPN's No. 1 prospect, which led to a recruiting circus. There was the way-too-early commitment to Clemson, his mother's desire for him to play with Denzel at Ole Miss and the minute-by-minute updates of his every move.

Nkemdiche said he hated the spotlight and the constant pestering. Even after he signed with Ole Miss -- in a nationally televised ceremony for which he wore a bow tie and suspenders -- Nkemdiche said a debilitating recruiting hangover carried over to fall practice.

"He always worked hard, he just wasn't focused on the right goals," wide receiver Laquon Treadwell said. "He had to learn that because he got caught up in the hype a little bit."


The sight of Nkemdiche is impressive.

"His sheer size, and he's so big and fast and agile," safety Cody Prewitt said. "You don't see very many guys like that, and I'm glad he's on our side."

From his physique and scary football ability to his love for fashion, books and skateboarding, going down the Nkemdiche rabbit hole is an adventure.

The first thing people mention is his talent. When his motor is running and he's alert, Nkemdiche is a force players would rather not challenge.

Left tackle Laremy Tunsil, a fellow five-star 2013 recruit, said he'll never forget his first encounter with Nkemdiche during one-on-one drills on the second day in pads last year.

"When I say he bull-rushed me, oh man," Tunsil said. "I felt all 310 [pounds] just coming at me, full of muscle, six-pack and everything. I was like, 'I see why he's No. 1.' I've never seen somebody so explosive coming off the ball in my life."

And now Nkemdiche has lost weight and etched a few more muscles into his frame.

"I've never seen anybody who's 295 pounds, and they can breathe and you can see every ab that he has," defensive end C.J. Johnson said. "It's unreal."

The son of Nigerian immigrants with a mother who is now an ambassador there and a father in the medical field, Nkemdiche has always been exposed to a world outside of football and has a more open-minded view of the world around him.

His dress style baffles his teammates. There are the camouflage bucket hats and the long white T-shirts paired with tight pajama bottoms he'll wear to class. There are skinny jeans and tight, animal-inspired graphic tees.

"He wears whatever he wants -- fashion freak," Treadwell said.

He's hoping to turn his family clothing line, "Timeless Generation," which was started by his two cousins and his oldest brother, Bryan, into a national brand after he's drafted into the NFL. Later this month, he'll take part in an Oxford fashion show for the line.

He began skateboarding while visiting a friend in California. It's a work in progress, but Nkemdiche says he leaves the double-reinforced skateboarding for the offseason.

"I tried an ollie, but it was kind of a fail," Nkemdiche said. "I'm gonna get it right. ... I know what I'm doing. I can skate down the sidewalk. I can stop with my foot. I have a couple skills here and there."

Nkemdiche's obsession with reading has to do with him wanting to "find a deeper purpose in life." He plans to write a science fiction novel later in his life.

He just finished "Feed," which is set in the future and deals with corporate power, consumerism and environmental decay, and is thinking of starting a book on medieval times "to see how my brain will react" to reading it. Freeze also gave him a motivational book, "All In," to start before the season.

Diving into Nkemdiche's eclectic mind can get perplexing at times, as Tunsil discovered when his teammate randomly tweeted a picture of Malcolm X baptizing Tupac.

"I try to stay away from his thoughts," Tunsil said with a laugh. "He's weird, man."


Nkemdiche insists things will be different in 2014. An up-and-down first year earned him two sacks and eight tackles for loss -- hardly the stat line of a giant.

Off-the-field issues followed in February, as Nkemdiche and his brother were sued for $2 million in February over an alleged fight outside an Ole Miss fraternity. (The Nkemdiches have denied all charges and filed a countersuit.) Denzel, meanwhile, was suspended for the season opener against Boise State following an arrest for a separate incident.

Last year, coaches had to rip Nkemdiche's Superman cape off at times because he put too much pressure on himself and tried to make plays that weren't there. His hype told him he was top dog, and he needed to act like it. He didn't always play within the defense, and that forced coaches to sit him.

Nkemdiche says he now sees things more clearly. The playbook has become easier, and his work ethic has improved. His brain is slowing down, yet he's playing faster with his cape fully attached.

"I'm starting to depend on him a little more because I've seen him do his job," Prewitt said.

He's also trying to cool his emotions. Last season, Nkemdiche's rage erupted when things didn't go his way during games. The goal now is to channel that anger for good. To test Nkemdiche, Freeze created situations in practices to poke at him.

"I know I can't be selfish and hurt our team because that could be the difference [in a win or loss]," Nkemdiche said.

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone around the program who thinks Nkemdiche will hurt Ole Miss. He has a different, more controlled swagger, and even more is expected out of the man once pegged to save a program.

"He looks way different," Johnson said. "He's going to be hard to block. I don't know if one person is going to be able to block him. He's just so freakishly big and strong and fast. It's really hard to put it into perspective how good he's going to be."