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."

* * *

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."

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