Former Ole Miss defensive tackle thrilled to be a Cardinal

CHICAGO, Ill. — Robert Nkemdiche had to wait a bit to realize his NFL dream.

But he couldn’t have scripted a better landing.

Nkemdiche, the former Ole Miss defensive tackle, was taken by the Arizona Cardinals with pick No. 29 of the first round of the NFL Draft Thursday night.

“I can’t wait to get there and start on my career,” he said. “I knew they were very interested in me. They said that they believed in me and I would fit their team and scheme very well. They got good vibes from me when I went over there, and I got the same. It’s special thing.”

Nkemdiche was a two-time All-American selection in his Rebel career, including first-team honors by in 2015. He earned All-Sec distinction twice, and he was the first defensive lineman to be named a finalist for the Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player.

He started 34 of 35 games, totaling 98 tackles, 19.0 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks.

“It’s the best feeling, man,” Nkemdiche said. “I can relax and focus on football and what matters and have a great career and keep moving forward. There’s a lot of guys (with the Cardinals) I can look up to and follow. I can be a good asset and play my role and be the guy they need me to be.”

Nkemdiche said everything after the call from the Cardinals is a blur.

“I blanked out,” he said. “When I saw Phoenix, Arizona I knew this was it. It was a beautiful moment, man. It’s hard to explain. I’m so happy I’m there. It’s where I needed to be, and that’s where I’m going to be great at. It fits me perfectly. That’s why they chose me, because they saw that.”

Nkemdiche was one of three Rebels to hear their names called in the first round, joining Laremy Tunsil (No. 13 to the Miami Dolphins) and Laquon Treadwell (No. 23 to the Minnesota Vikings). The trio signed with Ole Miss together in 2013 with thoughts of reaching the NFL together.

Mission accomplished.

“It’s different when you’re here,” Nkemdiche said. “It’s surreal. It’s not the same thing as saying ‘Oh, man, we can. We’re going to be first-round picks.’ Now we are. It’s a little different. It’s amazing, man. I’m so happy for those two, and I’m so happy for everyone else who got drafted. It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s a moment you can keep going and keep running with it.

“Laquon’s a beautiful soul, man, and he’s a great dude. He’s a great receiver. He’s powerful. He blocks, he can catch and he can do anything you want from a receiving standpoint. Minnesota Vikings got a great player and a great dude.”

Nkemdiche had to wait longer than he expected when the process began. His stock took a hit in December following an off-the-field incident in an Atlanta hotel, and only continued to fall following a rather bizarre — if honest — interview at the NFL Combine in February.

But he gained momentum leading up to the draft, though he admitted he was concerned that he could fall to the second round. In the end, the Cardinals couldn’t pass on such a unique talent. The 6-foot-4, 294-pound Nkemdiche ran a 4.87-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and he also had a 35-inch vertical jump and 28 reps on the 225-pound bench press.

“Wherever I went was where I was supposed to go,” Nkemdiche said. “It’s here. It’s the Cardinals, so I’m happy. I had them in the back of my mind that the Arizona Cardinals was where I was supposed to be. My agent and my family were thinking it was probably going to be the Cardinals, and it is. Everybody (with the Cardinals) I talked to had those comforting vibes. They didn’t judge me, and they were mature people and it’s where I’m supposed to be. I’m happy about it. More than happy.

“There’s a fire. There’s more of a fire because they trust in me. I want to give back every inch of my soul to show them, hey, we’re eye to eye. I can’t wait to do it. They’re getting a great player, disruptive player, aggressive player. My best ball’s ahead of me. I’m going to keep evolving and I’m going to keep finding ways to get better as a player and as a person. It’s going to be a beautiful thing, and I can’t wait to do it.”

The draft wasn’t without it’s sour moments for Ole Miss. Laremy Tunsil was surrounded by controversy due to hacked social media accounts, and the former Rebel left tackle — long projected as the No. 1 overall pick — fell to 12 spots.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Nkemdiche said. “I love that dude, and he’s such a good person. I hate to see something like that happen. But it’s already in the past. He’s already looking forward. I’m happy for him, and I’m happy for his family. I can’t wait to see what he does in the NFL.”

Nkemdiche shared his moment with his mother and father, who accompanied him on the pre-draft red carpet and into the green room. Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze was in attendance, too, and Nkemdiche had nothing but positive things to say about what Freeze meant for him on and off the field.

Nkemdiche was suspended for the Sugar Bowl due to the Atlanta incident. But when asked by a reporter about the incident in a press conference following his selection, he said he understood the decision and stood by his head coach.

“Coach Freeze is a great dude,” he said. “Me and coach Freeze have had a great relationship for a really long time. I love him to death, man. That’s my dude. He’s always stood next to me, and he’s never judged me or shied away. He’s always been by my side, and I love him for that.

“I’m a guy of understanding, and I understood that’s what he had to do for the betterment of the program and everybody else. He had to use me as an example for the younger kids and the kids coming up. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you mess up, there are consequences. I definitely understood that. There was no animosity, and just like you saw, he was with me the whole time. He’s a great dude. I love him to death. I love everybody on the Ole Miss staff.”

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