Robert Nkemdiche's Ole Miss career came to an abrupt and ignominious end on Sunday. The fall that began from a fourth-floor window in Atlanta and picked up speed with a drug possession charge finally came to rest with a Sugar Bowl suspension and the expected announcement that Nkemdiche will enter the 2016 NFL Draft.
With the (totally not synthetic) smoke of that sudden incident beginning to clear, Rebel fans are left with the ambiguous task of assessing the former No. 1 recruit's three seasons in Oxford. Talented but inconsistent; destructive yet placidly existential; the bedrock and a black eye of Hugh Freeze's program reconstruction -- understanding Big Rob's legacy at Ole Miss is as convoluted as one of his philosophical musings.
By the measure of stark statistics, Nkemdiche's impact has been modest: over the course of three seasons, he tallied an unexceptional 81 tackles, 16 for loss and six sacks. As is oft-repeated by Ole Miss fans, however, traditional metrics have no way of measuring double-teams eaten or chaos created. By his mere presence on the field, Nkemdiche distorted offensive gameplans and opened up plays for his defensive teammates (if there was such thing as a sack or tackle assist earned by accumulating double-teams, Nkemdiche would probably lead the country).
This is the effect Robert Nkemdiche has: getting TRIPLE TEAMED while Prewitt runs free on the blitz pic.twitter.com/8RjZyl8aUs— Jeff Gray (@Jeff_GraySBN) September 10, 2014
Still, compare Nkemdiche's statical output to that of the four defensive tackles picked top-10 in the last five years, all of whom garnered plenty of attention from offensive coordinators.
Stats are from each players' final three college seasons, except for Dareus, who played just two.
|Player||Overall pick||Year drafted||Total tackles||Tackles for loss||Sacks|
It's here that we start to hear the grumblings of "inconsistent motor" and "taking plays off." To be frank, it's hard to mount a strong argument against it. Nkemdiche showed the ability to absolutely dominate a game -- the first half in Tuscaloosa, the second half of the Egg Bowl -- so why didn't we see it more often? Be it motivation, conditioning or something else, something limited Nkemdiche from consistently producing at the level he was capable of.
When Nkemdiche did turn it on, though, it was fucking incredible.
But Nkemdiche's real legacy is not one of tackles, sacks or dubious drug use. When he slid off his high school letterman jacket to reveal Ole Miss suspenders on National Signing Day 2013, he brought immeasurable legitimacy to Hugh Freeze's claim that something special was happening in Oxford. Without Nkemdiche leaning toward the Rebels in the fall of 2012, there might be no Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil or Tony Conner; certainly not all of them. Rob's interest and eventual signature gave Freeze more than just a seven-win season to pitch. The best high school player in the country has bought into what we're doing here. You should too.
That announcement ceremony at Grayson High precipitated the most significant day in the history of Ole Miss recruiting: four five-stars, three players ranked No. 1 in the country at their position, the first ever top-10 class and a coming out party for Freeze's fledgling program televised live on ESPN.
And it's not that Nkemdiche simply showed up -- it's that, despite the inconsistencies and lack of stats, he played well enough during his three years in Oxford to make himself a top-10 draft pick. Despite the importance that we as fans put on passion for the game and school loyalty, the overriding motivation for any elite recruit is to turn pro and go early in the draft. That Nkemdiche arrived in Oxford as the best high school prospect in the country and is leaving as arguably the most talented prospect in college football speaks volumes about this staff's ability to get these young players where they ultimately want to go: the League. The fact that Treadwell and Tunsil could join Rob early in the first round hammers home the notion that Ole Miss is a place you can go to realize your NFL dreams.
As historic as Feb. 6, 2013 was, Signing Day 2016 is shaping up to be even bigger: Freeze's class is currently ranked tops in the country by Rivals, includes pledges from the top overall quarterback and offensive tackle and could still add the country's No. 1 player (once again, a defensive lineman). That's not possible without Robert Nkemdiche being bold enough to turn down the national powers and do something a bit different.