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Nkemdiche making a name for himself

After redshirting this past season, linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche has emerged from his younger brother Robert’s shadow as a statistical and emotional leader for the Ole Miss defense.
Thomas Graning/The Daily Mississippian

To be a freshman and be a leader, particularly in the Southeastern Conference, is rare, in the words of head coach Hugh Freeze. However, Ole Miss redshirt freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche has done just that.
“There’s no age, there’s no perfect rubric for being a leader,” Nkemdiche said. “If you want to be courageous and step up and lead by example, lead vocally, why not? If my teammates take that into their perspective and respect that, why not keep doing it and show up every weekend?”
So far, that’s worked well for the relatively undersized 5-foot-11, 203-pounder from Loganville, Ga., who leads the team with 38 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles. 
But the respect he has earned from his teammates goes beyond the box score.
“It has to do with him backing up his effort and attitude on the field,” Freeze said. “He still makes some mistakes, just like all freshmen do. He goes 100 miles per hour, though, when he makes those. Sometimes he’s able to overcome.
“The passion that he shows playing this game at this university, no one can question that. That’s something that our fans and our people have been very hungry to see. He leads by example in that arena.”
Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack admitted he has been surprised somewhat by Nkemdiche’s success so far this season after moving from defensive back to linebacker during fall camp.
“I didn’t know how he would hold up against some of those bigger guys,” Wommack said. “He’s been like a rocket coming through there, just total intensity.
“I think we’ll get him a little bigger, but I love the way he plays. He’s been a huge lift for us, no doubt. He’s one of those guys that’s absolutely getting better each and every week.”
Coming out of Grayson High School, Nkemdiche originally signed with Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College on National Signing Day.
Then, after he made a qualifying score on his ACT to become academically eligible, Division I offers came rolling in, and he narrowed it down to Georgia and Ole Miss.
“Georgia was in my backyard, and I didn’t really know about being so close to home where everybody could come right there and see me,” Nkemdiche said, “I kind of just wanted to get away and really find myself and become the player that I wanted to be.
“I saw that there would be early playing time at Ole Miss because of the way things were. When I got here, I was just like, ‘Why not try to make a difference? Why not try to change something? Why not do something out of the ordinary?’”
After redshirting this past season, it didn’t take too long for Nkemdiche to make a difference, as he recorded eight tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack in his Ole Miss debut, a 49-27 win against Central Arkansas.
“When they told me, I was excited, and it just made me prepare that much better,” he said of starting his first college game. “My focus level got turned up to another level. Coach told me not to get overwhelmed, and I wasn’t at all.
“I missed competition. I just missed it so much, and (to) finally get that opportunity, I don’t want to let that chance go. I just wanted to do what my coaches teach me and help my teammates and do my job for my teammates also.”
Less than a month later, Nkemdiche was named SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week after he tallied a career-high 11 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and two forced fumbles in a 33-14 loss to No. 1 Alabama.
“I think the film confirmed what we saw live, which was just a fanatical effort,” linebackers coach Tom Allen said of Nkemdiche’s game against Alabama.
“We call him the ‘Tasmanian devil.’ That’s kind of how he plays. He’s not very big, but he’s got a huge heart, and I think his play is infectious.”
Nkemdiche didn’t get the recruiting attention of his younger brother Robert, the nation’s No. 1 high school player, and while he has never been jealous of his brother, he said it’s definitely felt good to get out of his younger brother’s shadow.
“All the questions, the magazines, newspaper articles and things of that sort — it was all motivation,” he said. “It just kept me going and gave me something to work for.
“I felt like no matter how much Robert has succeeded in high school, I’ve taken that next step, I’ve made it to the next level, so I want to keep taking steps forward, leading for him and showing him that it is possible that you can do it, no matter what, even though he is the No. 1 player in the nation. I still want to show him that I can do it too.”
Robert said that it’s great watching his older brother play and he’s proud of his success.
“I love that guy, it’s my brother, and I am happy to see him succeed because a lot of people doubted him and said Ole Miss just took him for me, but he’s really shining on his own and doing what he does,” Robert Nkemdiche said in an interview with the Gwinnett (Ga.) Daily Post.
Nkemdiche said when talks to his brother, who has verbally committed to Clemson, he’s also actively recruiting him because he wants the Ole Miss program to be the best that it can be, and for it to be the best that it can be, it has to get recruits like Robert.
“I talk to him more about what we can do here, about how special it can be if he came here and if he understood how we can change the Ole Miss program,” Nkemdiche said. “He’s really taking that into consideration now that he’s seeing us compete at this level and seeing what I’m doing at this level.”
For now, though, Nkemdiche and his teammates are focused on moving forward from the disappointment of this past Saturday’s 30-27 loss against Texas A&M when Ole Miss hosts Auburn on Saturday.
“It hurt, and I’m glad that players were affected like that,” he said. “I’m glad that they hurt like that because that means they really do care and that they want to win. It hurt the entire locker room. It’s a feeling that we don’t ever want to feel again. That’s going to give us a little push.”