OXFORD — Denzel Nkemdiche is the perfect poster child for the University of Mississippi’s resurgent football team.
He’s way too small to play linebacker in the Southeastern Conference and makes his share of mistakes. But he also is passionate and aggressive, intelligent, and eager to learn, and was under-recruited and is an overachiever.
The 5-foot-11, 203-pound redshirt freshman has turned one of the unlikely leaders — and one of the most productive players — on the defense as Ole Miss (4-3, 1-2 SEC) prepares to face the University of Arkansas (3-4, 2-2) on Saturday in Little Rock.
“To be a freshman and a leader is rare in this conference,” Ole Miss first-year coach Hugh Freeze said. “He’s kind of assumed that role defensively … It has to do with him backing up his effort and attitude on the field. He still makes some mistakes, just like all freshmen do. He goes 100 miles per hour when he makes those so 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.”
Nkemdiche leads the Rebels with 44 tackles this season, including nine for a loss and two sacks. He’s also grabbed an interception and forced two fumbles.
He’s been through the good times and the bad this season. The darkest moment for the defense was during a lopsided 66-31 to Texas on Sept. 15. It was the most points scored against Ole Miss since 1917.
But because of Nkemdiche and a core of improving young players, the defense has steadily improved since that sobering setback. It forced five turnovers in a narrow loss to Texas A&M on Oct. 6 and then had a solid performance in a 41-20 victory against Auburn on Oct. 13, which helped snap a 16-game Southeastern Conference losing streak.
Arkansas center Travis Swanson said the Rebels’ lack of size on defense makes them unconventional but effective.
“They’re not the biggest defense that you’ll see,” Swanson said. “They’re not an Alabama run-stop, just big guys like that. They’re very athletic. They move a lot as far as front seven go, so they rely on that kind of like their scheme to almost mess up your blocking schemes and stuff like that, because you don’t usually see a lot of teams that will move as much as they do.”
Now the Rebels are coming off a bye week and feel better equipped to handle Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, who is widely regarded as an elite NFL prospect.
“Definitely,” Nkemdiche said. “From the games we’ve played earlier this season — Alabama and Texas — and the situations we’ve been in, I really feel like we’re ready to take on Arkansas. After a bye week, seeing other teams playing on TV, we’re really rejuvenated and ready to get after it.”
Nkemdiche expects a difficult challenge. Arkansas was in the midst of a freefall earlier this season following crushing losses to Alabama and Texas A&M, but the Razorbacks have recovered with big wins over Auburn and Kentucky.
Nkemdiche respects how Arkansas has overcome adversity. The Rebels can relate.
“They got fed up with losing and they’re really coming together,” Nkemdiche said. “When you lose like that, you’re going to either fall apart or start to come together. And I feel like they’re starting to come together and show their positives and the strengths of their team.”
The Nkemdiche name is familiar to those who follow recruiting in college football — but not because of Denzel.
Younger brother Robert is one of the top high school seniors in the country. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end is verbally committed to Clemson.
Denzel’s arrival barely caused a ripple in Oxford when he arrived last season. Anytime he was asked a question, it was usually about his brother’s recruitment.
But that’s changed since he started making big plays for the Rebels.
“I’ve never let stuff like that get to me,” Nkemdiche said. “If I let a positive thing (for Robert) get to me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense because that’s my little brother. That would be me getting mad about my little brother’s success and that’s something I would never do.”
Instead, he’s focused on helping the Rebels get two more wins to become bowl eligible.
“We can smell it,” Nkemdiche said. “We know it’s close. But those two wins — nobody’s going to give them to us. We’re not just going to wake up and have those wins. We’ve going to have to work, and we’re committed to that.”