OXFORD, Mississippi — Robert Nkemdiche has had two very good seasons in the middle of Mississippi's defensive line.
But considering he was the former consensus No. 1 recruit in the country, very good seems a little disappointing.
It may not necessarily be fair, but that's the narrative surrounding the 6-foot-4, 296-pound Nkemdiche heading into his junior season. The Loganville, Georgia, native isn't shying away from the criticism, despite the fact that he was a second-team All-American in 2014.
"I really want to slow the game down a little more and finish plays," Nkemdiche said. "I'm always in the backfield, but I feel like I've missed a lot of plays that could have been game-changing."
His somewhat pedestrian stats from 2014 — 35 tackles, including four for a loss and two sacks — back up that assessment.
Nkemdiche's talent has been obvious since the moment he stepped on the field and by the middle of last season his No. 5 was ubiquitous in the backfield as he chased quarterbacks. Even though he's nearly 300 pounds, his athleticism allows coaches the freedom to move him around the defensive line in order to create mismatches.
It's one of the many reasons Ole Miss had arguably the SEC's best defense in 2014. The Rebels gave up just 16 points per game, which was tops nationally.
But some of the most productive players from that defense — including safety Cody Prewitt, linebackers Serderius Bryant and D.T. Shackelford and cornerback Senquez Golson — are gone. Now it's up to Nkemdiche and others to pick up the slack.
He said the summer has been spent training and building off-the-field rapport with teammates.
"It's more than just talented guys going out there and playing football," Nkemdiche said. "Football is not an individual sport. You've got to have a higher level of connection to be successful."
Nkemdiche is among a handful of Ole Miss juniors — including offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Laquon Treadwell and safety Tony Conner — who have legitimate NFL aspirations. Some early mock drafts have listed all four as potential first-round picks.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze says he's rooting for all four to play like NFL-caliber players this fall. If they do, it likely means the Rebels will have a good season.
"The resume that they put on the film will decide whether all that (NFL) stuff has any validity to it or not, and that's the only thing that will decide it," Freeze said. "That's what I hope they hear from me every single day. It's your resume and you're making it today."
Nkemdiche said even though the 2013 class had ample talent, they needed time to mature just like any other college players. Now he hopes they can lead Ole Miss to its first Southeastern Conference championship since 1963.
"Life's about evolving and we've evolved during our college careers," Nkemdiche said. "All of us, mentally and physically. At this point in time, we're ready to do some special things."
Fifth-year senior linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, Robert's older brother, said watching the 2013 class grow has been one of the best parts of his college career.
"It's been beautiful to watch them mature and become themselves," Denzel Nkemdiche said. "You just want them to be the best they can be. They're not competing with the guy next to them. They're competing with themselves and it's been unreal to watch and experience."
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