Nkemdiche was suspended two weeks ago for an off-the-field incident, and the Rebels have since turned to junior D.J. Jones and redshirt freshman Breeland Speaks to fill the void.
Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said Jones and senior Woodrow Hamilton would start. The Rebels take on Oklahoma State Friday at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.
“I’ve been working to get more in shape from where I was,” Jones said, adding he anticipates receiving 20-30 additional snaps. “Taking over where he was as far as him being gone. I’ve come a long way since week one. First five weeks, I was feeling around. Got into SEC play and I feel like I’ve made a name for myself and did what I had to do.”
Replacing Nkemdiche won’t be easy. The 6-foot-4, 296-pound junior, who has already declared for the 2016 NFL Draft, was named a second-team All-American and a first-team All-SEC selection. He started in all 11 games in which he’s played, finishing third on the team with 7.0 tackles for loss and tied for second with 3.0 sacks.
Speaks has already had success filling in for Nkemdiche. Nkemdiche was knocked out of the Memphis game due to a concussion. The 6-foot-3, 313-pound Speaks stepped in and had an impressive showing, totaling six tackles (three solo), including a pair of tackles for loss.
In all, Speaks has played in every game with two starts at defensive tackle.
“I feel like I’m prepared. I’m always prepared,” he said. “Make sure I’m out there running, make sure I’m in shape. That’s basically my M.O. going into every game. I’ll play a lot more. I don’t know the definite number, but there will definitely be an increase in my snaps. I’m always prepared, so regardless of the situation, I’m going to always be ready.”
The Sugar Bowl will be a preview of sorts for 2016. Ole Miss has already lost Nkemdiche, and the Rebels will say goodbye to seniors Channing Ward and Hamilton. But much of the defensive line is set to return, including Jones, Speaks, Fadol Brown, Marquis Haynes and Ross Donelly.
Speaks is the next in line, and he’s ready for the challenge. He said he’d like to get down to 290-295 by next season. He’s currently “around 308.” He believes a weight decrease will allow him to last longer in games and run faster. He’s already learned to stay low and keep his motor running on the field.
He’s just getting started.
“Robert’s not going to be here next year,” Speaks said. “I just look at it as this is going to be the d-line next year. Let’s see what I can do, let’s see what we can do with our five. I feel like it’s a strong group, and then we’ve got some strong freshmen coming in. I’m really excited to see what we look like in the spring with a few of those guys coming in early. I think we’ll have a good outlook this spring and see how we shape up next fall.”
Jones, who will likely be another defensive line anchor next season, said he and Speaks complement each other well because their games are similar.
“We’re both athletic, strong,” he said. “I feel like we’d be the same people if he wasn’t a little taller than me. We both know how to play the game.”
Jones has played in every game with two starts at nose tackle. And while he came on strong to end the year, he believes he’ll more-complete player in his senior season, and it starts with the Sugar Bowl.
He’s ready to lead, too.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play Division-I but then to have the chance to be a leader in the locker room,” he said. “SEC play, it’ll be great. You’ve got to come in next year and get the guys ready.”