By MICHAEL CARVELL
AJC Recruiting Reporter
Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche began the season known as the brother of the nation’s No. 1-ranked high school senior, Robert. But he’s quickly making a name for himself in the SEC, becoming a vocal leader and one of the league’s better young players.
Nkemdiche, a Grayson High graduate, feels like he has something to prove when Ole Miss (5-3) goes for the upset against No. 6 Georgia (7-1) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
“The excitement is unreal. This is like a homecoming for me, and I just can’t explain how excited I am to play between the hedges,” Nkemdiche said. “I’m going to have so many friends and family there. This game is extremely personal.”
At 5 feet 11, 203 pounds, he’s the leading tackler for Ole Miss and will bring a little extra motivation this week because he feels like he could’ve been recruited differently by Georgia when he was at Grayson, which is located 40 miles from Athens. Nkemdiche was a late qualifier as a senior, committing to Ole Miss after an official visit in May, and stayed with the Rebels after last-minute overtures from Georgia.
“Georgia came in with that late (scholarship) offer, but I felt like they had their reasons for doing that,” Nkemdiche said. “I felt like they didn’t want me all the way because of me. I felt like some of it had to do with my brother, Rob.”
Robert is a senior at Grayson and is committed to Clemson, although his mother wants him to sign with Ole Miss so the brothers can play together.
“Every mother would want that,” Beverly Nkemdiche said. “I don’t want a case where they have games in two different states, and I will be running around like a rooster, or not go to one. Every parent would really want that. It’s my wish for it to happen, but I’m not going to put pressure on anybody.”
Denzel, who was unranked by Rivals as a senior, was recruited by former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt to play safety. He redshirted last season and found himself in a new position after the Rebels changed head coaches.
“He was playing one of the safety positions when we got here,” Ole Miss first-year coach Hugh Freeze said. “Well, you look at us and who we are: We’re small, so you better get your best speed on the field in this league. That’s the only way we felt like we could compete. Seeing how fast that Denzel ran around in practice, we felt like we could do something with him at that linebacker spot. It enabled us to get faster guys on the field.”
Nkemdiche was receptive to switching positions because he desperately wanted to get on the field. By halftime of the Ole Miss season opener against Central Arkansas, Freeze was convinced he had a special talent at linebacker, along with something else: Nkemdiche had turned into a vocal leader.
“We’re always challenging guys to lead, and Denzel kind of started at halftime of our first game,” Freeze recalled. “And it’s one thing to be vocal and not back it up on the field. But no one can question how hard he plays, and how much an effort he puts into the practices and games. … And when Denzel speaks up, people tend to listen.”
The rest of the SEC is paying close attention to Nkemdiche now, too. He was selected co-SEC Defensive Player of the Week after posting 11 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and two caused fumbles in a loss to No. 1-ranked Alabama.
“We did not offer his brother (Denzel), but we thought he was a good football player,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said this week. “And I’m not going to get into any current recruits right now. But (Denzel is) certainly playing extremely well.”
Nkemdiche’s high school coach is not surprised about his transformation.
“Absolutely, I saw this coming,” Grayson coach Mickey Conn said. “Denzel is definitely pound-for-pound the hardest hitter that’s ever come through Grayson High School.“Denzel will strike you and he’s got a ton of speed.”
Conn defended Georgia and other schools that didn’t vigorously pursue Denzel from the outset.
“Had he not had those academic issues, there’s no telling who else might’ve thrown an offer out there for him,” Conn said. “. . . They couldn’t take a chance on him early because it really looked like he was going to end up at a junior college or prep school. He just got to working on his test scores, took some extra classes and got his GPA up. He just did what it took.
“That’s just the way that Denzel is. He just finds a way to rise to the occasion, which is exactly what’s doing at Ole Miss.”
Ironically, it was Richt whom Nkemdiche credits with giving him help as a senior when it looked like he might not qualify. Georgia’s coach put in a good word with Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College, where Nkemdiche signed to play football in February 2011. That left him the option of signing with an FBS school if he qualified later in the year, which is what happened.
Both Ole Miss and Georgia were among the first schools notified in May 2011 that Nkemdiche was on the verge of meeting entrance requirements. Ole Miss never discussed his brother with him.
“Ole Miss really wanted me for me, which I really appreciated,” Nkemdiche said. “Georgia offered me when I got back from my official with Ole Miss. By that time, I had already made up my mind up. Once I made that type of decision, I didn’t want to go back on it. It just felt right in Oxford.”
Georgia may not have missed out only on an All-SEC candidate but also on a prime opportunity to recruit Nkemdiche’s highly regarded brother. Denzel repeated this week what he has said all along about the brothers playing together in college.
“I’ve said from Day 1 that Rob is going to be with me, and that’s still how I feel,” Denzel said. “I just have that feeling. He’s my baby brother, you know. I just know how he is, I know how close we are and I just have that feeling.”
Said Robert, “I see where my mother is coming from. She wants to see both of us on the same team, and seeing us do great things together. We’ll see how it all plays out. We’ll see how it goes.”