He knows his place, as a leader for not just the Rebel defense, but the team as a whole. He relishes the opportunity to hold others accountable, to help guide an Ole Miss collective many expect to compete for the SEC West in 2015.
“It’s something I expected. I foreshadowed this moment,” said Nkemdiche, more than two years removed from his days as the No. 1 overall recruit in the country. “I’m going to seize the moment because it’s special. It’s different. Not a lot of people get to experience the moment.
“You really want to make sure you don’t miss any small areas, and don’t take the scenic route. Just walk and keep being an example. Keep doing great things on and off the field.”
Nkemdiche has always been a thoughtful, observant, measured type. He’s one of the most-decorated players in all of college football, named preseason All-America first team by Sporting News, Athlon and others. He earned second All-America honors by the Associated Press, USA Today and more last season. And if things go as expected in the coming months, he’ll likely be a top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft next spring.
But he doesn’t talk like it. That’s not the 6-foot-4, 296-pound Nkemdiche’s style. He’s focused only on here and now, on being there for his teammates and having a year to remember.
“I think this is going to be a very outlandish team,” he said. “This team is very different. The whole DNA and the whole aura of the team is just unusual. It’s very unorthodox, and the people on the team are coming together a lot more than I’ve seen, ever. That’s what I feel like is special on this team. Off the field, we’re connected as human beings and brothers. Our energy is there more.
“It’s more of an off-the-field thing. It’s more of a connection not a lot of football teams have, I don’t think. I think you (usually) have more individuals, and this team has more cohesive magnetism, connection. People don’t get to see that. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re playing for the person next to us. We’re not playing to go to the NFL. We’re not playing to be better. We’re not playing to be the top man or anything else. We’re playing to better ourselves so our brother can be happy, you know what I mean? It’s not like ‘I’m better than you,’ or egos involved. It’s more energy, ‘Let’s get a win’ kind of preparation.”
Fall camp has followed the theme. Nkemdiche, who totaled 35 tackles with 4.0 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks and a pass breakup as a sophomore, said the team has worked towards mastering “coming together holy as a team and focusing on us and nothing else,” including the offense and the defense competing like never before.
“Defense, man, when we’re playing at our best, they have a hard time,” he said. “But they’ve been doing a great job, man. They’ve been doing a really good job, and I can’t wait to see them play on Saturday.
“We want to be known as one of the most physical, baddest, craziest, on-the-edge teams. Of course stopping the ball is one of the things we want to make sure we pay attention to. Stopping the pass, special teams. Whenever we’re on the field, we want to make sure we’re doing our best job.”
Nkemdiche is the anchor of the Rebel defense, to be sure, but he’s not alone. Rarely, if ever, has Ole Miss had such depth throughout its roster, especially on the defensive line, allowing for myriad ways to attack opposing offenses.
Ole Miss led the nation in scoring defense last season.
“You have so many more guys doing it than just a few guys. It’s a lot harder to pay attention to a certain guy now,” he said. “You have so many guys everywhere on the field coming full speed, bullets. It’s going to be hard for teams to try and focus in on different guys and do different things because everybody’s playing on a really high level.”
Senior defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton has caught Nkemdiche’s eye in camp, as has junior college transfer D.J. Jones and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Breeland Speaks.
“He’s a freak,” Nkemdiche said of Hamilton. “Very powerful, physical, explosive guy. I just love to play next to him, and I’m happy to have him by my side. We’re going to do great things.”
“(Jones and Speaks) are two more freaks. D.J.’s so strong and powerful. He’s the strongest guy on the team in the weight room. He’s a really powerful dude. Explosive, quick. Really good dude off the field, too. I really pay attention to people off the field. I pay attention more than just the football and the sports aspect of things. He’s a really good dude off the field. He’s a really powerful player. Breeland Speaks is really good, too. He’s learning. He’s raw. He’s going to be very good, too. Happy to have those guys playing next to me also.”
Ole Miss will open its season Saturday against UT-Martin at 11 a.m. The Rebels are a heavy favorite, of course, but Nkemdiche said the goal isn’t to prove a point on the scoreboard.
“I feel like when we get on the field and people see the energy we have and see what we bring to the table, that’s what’s going to be our DNA,” he said. “We’re not trying to prove a point on the scoreboard. We’re trying to prove a point when people see us play together on the field. It’s not about the point margin. It’s about the energy and cohesiveness when people watch our film.”
And embracing the moment, at least in the case of Nkemdiche.