Robert Nkemdiche, the nation's top college football prospect, is expected to announce he'll play for the University of Mississippi on Wednesday morning. The Rebels, a program just a season removed from a 2-10 implosion and a total overhaul under first-year head coach Hugh Freeze, have been the unofficial leader for Nkemdiche's services for months.
That's largely thanks in part to his older brother Denzel, a now-standout linebacker. But having a brother on the roster alone wasn't enough to convince Nkemdiche, or even his parents, despite his mother's public statement that she wanted her sons to play for the same college.
Several factors got Robert Nkemdiche to Oxford, including the combined efforts of two very different coaching staffs, fortuitous hirings and firings, a position change, the hubris of rival coaches and one amazing fourth quarter from this year's Heisman winner. But first...
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Houston Nutt had to be the head coach at Ole Miss in 2009.
As we detailed back in October, former Ole Miss offensive line coach Mike Markuson visited Grayson High School head coach Mickey Conn in the Spring of 2010. The two were old friends, and Conn happened to play Markuson a highlight tape of a 5’11, 198-pound tweener with plenty of talent, but enough doubt surrounding his grades that SEC programs hadn’t pursued him.
More than a year before his brother would become a household name in recruiting circles, Denzel Nkemdiche was a classic Houston Nutt hidden gem: a SEC-caliber player with enough baggage to keep him off the radar of other SEC programs.
Arriving in Oxford two seasons prior, Nutt lacked the recruiting philosophy of his predecessor, Ed Orgeron. There was no year-round press, no high-profile targeting, but Nutt didn't mind taking a flyer on talented players that might wash out because of academic, legal or discipline issues. Assault charges? Theft? Chronic disciplinary issues? Chronic behavioral issues? No worries: If they made it, they made it, and if not, welp.
Nutt's cavalier approach is largely credited for the SEC's current signing limits, especially after he inked a giant, 37-man class in 2009, a flood-the-lane approach towards restocking Orgeron's departing NFL talent. That method proved disastrous for Nutt, and that's important because...
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Georgia football had to be successful and stable under Mark Richt.
In hindsight UGA fans are livid that Denzel Nkemdiche slipped out of the state, but with the wealth of talent available to a brand name SEC power, why take a risk on a virtual unknown with academic issues?
When Marksuon found Denzel in the slush pile, the Rebels were already in the midst of a SEC losing streak that would stretch across three seasons. Nutt was oversigning character and grade risks but losing the majority of those gambles (as of this writing, 16 signees from the 2010 and '11 classes are currently not on the Ole Miss roster), creating a vacuum of available talent to build depth. Ole Miss started 2010, Nutt's third season and the first without Orgeron's recruits, with a home loss to FCS Jacksonville State.
Over in Athens, it was business as usual for Mark Richt's group. That meant virtually ignoring Denzel Nkemdiche's recruitment, and not just because he was questionable to qualify.
The Bulldogs were set to be loaded on defense. In 2011 Georgia would sign seven defensive backs (Denzel's original projected position), including names like Malcolm Mitchell, Damian Swann, Corey Moore and Nick Marshall. Five of the seven were rated as four-star prospects, and three were ranked among the top 10 prospects at their positions in the nation.
The '11 class would join names like Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree in Todd Grantham's developing 3-4, a scheme that would help Georgia win 22 games over the next two years. In a way, Georgia was just too successful to notice Denzel Nkemdiche, and it's hard to blame them.
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Houston Nutt had to be fired by Ole Miss in 2011.
Denzel did finally qualify, and joined the Rebels long after the hoopla of National Signing Day on May 20, 2011, right about the time his brother's prowess became a national topic of interest for college football fans. Georgia, Alabama and LSU were considered the de facto favorites for a talent like Robert, but even the hometown media admitted that Ole Miss had to be considered a player as well, at least early on.
They almost weren't: Denzel arrived on campus having been promised a chance to compete for playing time, a perk the former staff immediately rescinded. Despite depth issues across the defense, the elder Nkemdiche was redshirted for 2011 after defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix and his staff didn't project him to break the secondary rotation.
"For whatever reason, he wasn't really popular with that staff, and no one was ever really specific as to why," a source inside the Ole Miss football program said. "It's really strange now, considering how he's the leader of that defense, but [Nutt's staff] thought he could end up being trouble for them. If Houston Nutt is still there, I think Denzel is probably a safety and probably not starting."
Ole Miss would allow an average of 419 yards a game in a 2-10 campaign that cost the jobs of Nutt and athletic director Pete Boone and spawned the formation of a splinter group of angry alumni fighting against the university.
It was the worst of times, but had Nutt somehow inexplicably survived 2011, it could've been even worse for Ole Miss and Robert Nkemdiche. Denzel's little brother was being compared to Jadeveon Clowney while still in high school, but Denzel had little equity with his coaches and an uncertain future. Needless to say, Denzel wasn't making ringing endorsements for Ole Miss Rebel football. So...
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Hugh Freeze had to be hired as the new Ole Miss head coach.
Enter Hugh Freeze, a hurry-up spread-option enthusiast and former Orgeron assistant tasked with reviving both sides of the ball and rescuing a roster plagued by academic troubles off of it. To many Ole Miss fans, Freeze could potentially represent all of the good aspects of Orgeron (dogged and expert recruiting) and none of the bad (gameday coaching, program management). Two of the biggest names other than Nkemdiche expected to sign with Ole Miss on Wednesday are representative of the Orgeron mindset carried out with Freeze's growing reputation as a living room closer:
- Five-star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, whose best friend, Anthony Standifer was recruited to Ole Miss as a defensive back in 2012 and chose the Rebels over Michigan and Oklahoma largely due to Standifer's enthusiasm and Freeze's staff's persistence.
- Five-star safety Antonio Conner, a down-to-the-wire call between Ole Miss and Alabama, hails from South Panola High School in Batesville, Miss., a football factory just 30 miles from Ole Miss' campus. After recent blunders with other top South Panola prospects during Nutt's run (running back Tig Barksdale and corner Nick Brassell, who is expected to renroll at Ole Miss this year), Freeze was able to calm any lingering frustration from what was once the Rebels' backyard stockpile of NFL talent.
On the field, Denzel became an emergency linebacker, shoring up one of the thinnest positions on a decimated roster. That move came from veteran coordinator Dave Wommack, who installed the 4-2-5 as the base defense for the Rebels.
It was more out of dire need than any schematic philosophy, but now tweener talents like Denzel could operate as hybrid linebacker-safeties. It didn't really matter which player had what history, as a defense with no depth and horrific results dictated mandatory role changes. With the biggest advantage towards landing the nation's top recruit already on campus, Freeze's staff rediscovered Denzel, who immediately became a vocal team leader.
"It was halftime of that first game of the season [vs. Central Arkansas] and we were down [Ole Miss trailed 20-14]. Denzel gets up, he's mad... gets everybody fired up and talks about how things have to change and change right now. He didn't sound like a freshman to me," a now-former Ole Miss player said.
By season's end, Ole Miss would finish 7-6 and Nkemdiche would earn Freshman All-American status from the Football Writers Association of America. He led the team in tackles (82), had 13 tackles for a loss, forced four fumbles and had three interceptions.
His star was shining, but so was little brother's. While nothing altered the recruitment of Robert as much as Denzel's emergence, it did help that...
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Dabo Swinney had to screw things up for everyone else.
Clemson hasn't been mentioned alongside Robert Nkemdiche's name since the middle of the 2012 season when the prospect officially decommitted. It's a well-known story by now: Robert takes a trip with a fellow Grayson High School teammate last summer and ends up giving a verbal commitment to the Tigers, in part to barter Clemson to take on a few teammates that were previously lacking major collegiate offers. His mother, Beverly, finds out from overseas and is none too happy. The perception outside of Clemson is that Dabo Sweeney and his staff pressured Robert, or perhaps the kid was just excited and swept up in the moment or wheeling and dealing for his friends.
Whatever the specifics surrounding family friction with the Clemson announcement -- and we may never find out -- the new rules were set by Beverly Nkemdiche: namely, any major decision would come with family input. That meant Beverly, who works in the Nigerian legislature, would have to be present. That fact alone hampered major outside powers, not to mention her publicly stated wish that her sons play together.
"I think what they did wrong was just very basic. She felt like they had disrespected her husband and her by not talking to them about the comittment first, to her that was an unforgiveable sin," said Neal McCready, publisher of RebelGrove.com, who gained one of the few interviews Beverly gave during the 2012 season.
Suddenly Ole Miss had its strongest advantage possible: a government job in Africa. Accordingly, Robert ended up in Oxford almost every single weekend for the last half of the 2012 season, mostly as an unofficial visitor and simply staying with his brother (most accounts have him at five different Ole Miss football games this season, all as an unofficial visitor). His biggest non-Oxford campus visit came on November 3 at Georgia... when the Bulldogs beat Ole Miss.
Still, McCready insists that the Ole Miss staff has never assumed anything. Nkemdiche visited LSU over the weekend and took an official visit to Florida, with those schools likely rounding out any potential hat ceremony.
"They've covered absolutely every base," McCready said. "They've had blinders on, absolute tunnel vision. They've focused on the mother, father, coaches, friends. They've done their due dilligence and then some. They've covered their bases in order to get him and I don't think they ever, not one time, allowed themselves to not take him for granted. Not once."
But just in case...
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Johnny Manziel had to be amazing.
No one is either confident or willing to point to a date in which the Rebels locked up Nkemdiche. Most believe that such an absolute never really occurred, that despite the familial advantage, Ole Miss has been too focused on a potential loss of ground against programs far more successful.
However, multiple sources on the Ole Miss side of Robert's recruitment -- including teammates and coaches at Ole Miss -- all point to the period following Rebels' 30-27 loss to Texas A&M on Oct. 6 as the beginning of a "stronger sense of confidence," in a potential commitment. And yes, the culprit was brotherly love.
After an even first half, the Rebels controlled the third quarter and a majority of the fourth before failing to convert on a 4th-and-inches run. That conversion would've almost certainly run the clock to give Ole Miss its first SEC win in more than 700 days.
Instead, Johnny Football. The Heisman winner engineered a two-touchdown comeback. At one point Manziel miraculously escaped a safety on a 3rd-and-19 scramble from the A&M 3-yard-line to hit a 32-yard pass down the right sideline. Two plays later he would score on a 29-yard touchdown rush, and after the Rebels' couldn't grab that first down, he hit receiver Ryan Swope for the game-winning touchdown.
Among the stunned and inconsolable was Denzel, who operated as a spy on Manziel during some plays and was one of the few defenders quick enough to catch up with the phenom. The elder Nkemdiche had actually tackled Manziel by the foot to prevent a first down conversion in the first quarter. Yet on each of Manziel's explosive plays in the fourth quarter, the quarterback broke contain first from the defensive end, something that was not lost on the younger Nkedmiche, who watched his brother and teammates unravel in devastation.
"It was hard. It was awful. And I think he really saw his brother's pain that night," a former Rebel player said. "I think things changed because he saw Denzel hurting so bad and knew that he could have made a difference out there."
"Perception is reality: If a prospect believes they're a superstar, then they are, and you recruit them as such," McCready said. "That night [Manziel] was a superstar, and Robert believed he could've made the difference, that he could have stopped him. That night he realized what he could do to help his brother."
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