Most of them are crying as they leave the field. Some fight it back with a grimace, some are leaning on each other in consolation. As he leaves the field, head coach Hugh Freeze's face is stoic until he's hit around the legs by one of his young daughters, sobbing uncontrollably as she wraps her arms around her father.
There are most likely tears on the face of running back Jeff Scott, but he's holding a towel over his face and head while jogging to be among the first off the field of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Scott failed to convert on what will be a much-debated play call on a 4th-and-inches scenario late in the fourth quarter. A conversion would've sealed a 27-23 victory for Ole Miss over visiting Texas A&M, marking the Rebels' first SEC win in 15 tries (a time span of 735 days). Rather than have 6'4 quarterback Bo Wallace run a sneak from under center, the Reswbels lined up in a shotgun formation and handed the ball to Scott, who was cut short. The Aggies won, 30-27.
A source inside the locker room will later claim that among the most inconsolable was hybrid linebacker/defensive back Denzel Nkemdiche, a redshirt freshman leading the team in tackles and emerging as a breakout star on a rebuilding Ole Miss roster with razor-thin depth. Under the direction of coordinator Dave Wommack, the Rebels started Nkemdiche, three true freshmen and two sophomores against A&M.
After a 2-10 implosion of a season in 2011, former head coach Houston Nutt was let go. Freeze was hired from Arkansas State and inherited a roster likely incapable of competing at the SEC level due to years of mismanagement. Nutt's Rebels hadn't won a conference game since October 2, 2010 against Kentucky. Entering this weekend's game against Auburn, the program has managed just nine wins since the start of the 2010 season. Of those nine, two have come against FCS opponents, two against Tulane, two against Fresno State and none against a team that finished with a winning record.
Yet somewhere inside Vaught-Hemingway last Saturday - hidden from the college football media he blacked out months prior - sat the nation's top college football prospect and Denzel's "little" brother. Robert Nkemdiche, the white whale of the 2013 National Signing Day battle, is - as of this writing - committed to play at defending ACC champion Clemson. Yet it's become overwhelmingly apparent that the Tigers are losing ground by the day to Ole Miss, thanks in part to an agressive and compassionate recruiter in Hugh Freeze and the sudden explosion of Robert's big brother, long forgotten by every school currently coveting Robert - except for these lowly Rebels.
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How one of the perennial basement dwellers of the nation's toughest conference is in the hunt for the best football prospect in the nation at the exact moment they're trying to shake off an all-time low starts with a chance conversation. When former Ole Miss offensive line coach Mike Markuson stopped by Grayson High School in the Atlanta suburb of Loganville to see his old friend Mickey Conn in the spring of 2010, the Grayson coach ended an otherwise standard visit with a stump campaign for a FBS-quality safety largely ignored because of his status as a potential grade casualty.
Conn played Markuson a tape of rising senior Denzel Nkemdiche, a 5'11, 198-pounder. Denzel was noticeably high energy, technically sound, a playmaker and a "no-brainer" as far as an offer was concerned, according to Markuson.
"As soon as it started, I’m watching his film and thinking, 'No one’s offered this guy?'" Markuson said.
Grades had blacklisted Denzel from the schools his talent could normally attract in a market like Atlanta. Georgia and Florida and Alabama hadn't pursued him. Neither had Georgia Tech, or any BCS school from the nearby area. Markuson immediately called then-head coach Houston Nutt and the defensive staff, headed by Tyrone Nix. A plan was made to track Denzel's academic progress cautiously and recruit him the same as any other player.
For his part, Denzel Nkemdiche had never been to Ole Miss or the state of Mississippi:
"I knew that they beat Florida in 2008. I knew they played in the SEC. I knew their colors were red and blue, and I knew who Dexter [McCluster], [Mike] Wallace and Michael Oher were. That was it. That was all I knew about them."
Despite coming off of back-to-back Cotton Bowl victories, Ole Miss was beginning to hemorrhage talent. Nutt had won big when he arrived in 2008, almost exclusively with players recruited by his predecessor, Ed Orgeron. But by the spring of 2010, a combination of attrition and multiple failed qualifiers in previous singing classes had eaten away at the depth chart. Despite signing a record 37 players in 2009 (prompting a league revision in signing class limits known as "The Houston Nutt Rule"), many of Nutt's character or academic gambles had gone bust, and the effect was about to reach the field when the Rebels opened the 2010 campaign with a home loss to FCS foe Jacksonville State.
"At the time, all we thought was that we needed players, and so we went full speed from there. We decided, 'Let’s offer this guy and see where it takes us.' So we extended that offer and went full speed from there," Markuson said.
It was that growing instability that prompted Markuson and Nutt to push for a kid whose talent level a more stable program didn't need to invest potentially wasted time in. Markuson made frequent phone calls and visits with Grayson academic counselors as Denzel played his senior season.
"You tend to develop relationships and bonds with guidance counselors in this process, and that definitely happened at Grayson. We stayed in very heavy contact," Markuson said.
No other schools called, even as talk about Denzel's "big" little brother began. Such a heavy number of man hours invested in a potential signee's eligibility is commonplace in the SEC, but the fact Ole Miss remained the sole interested party showed that the market clearly didn't value Denzel's potential worth as a football player against the amount of time and difficulty it would take to get him cleared, even with the potential bonus of luring his possible superstar brother.
Denzel didn't get any other phone calls until he'd officially qualified in May of 2011, months past National Signing Day. With the elder Nkemdiche now cleared and the younger brother's buzz building daily as he entered his junior season, Georgia suddenly took notice, which was exactly what Markuson had feared the entire time.
"We were concerned about other schools coming in on him if it worked, but at the time, Georgia was thinking about it, but they didn’t do anything. It's always a concern though, to compete against a program that’s so good and it’s where home is. Denzel wasn't even an hour from Athens."
The lateness of Nkemdiche's clearance was another stroke of luck for Ole Miss. By the time Georgia could offer an official visit on Memorial Day and potentially steal his commitment, Denzel would already have to be on campus for the Ole Miss academic summer session June 1. The Bulldogs had waited too long.
Denzel claims that he never felt he was recruited by any coach or program to get to his brother, even with UGA's last-second interest as Robert's name began to surface as the 2013 No. 1 prospect.
"That might have been an issue, but I never looked into it. I wanted to know who sounded the most genuine and where I could go to have a chance to compete," he said.
Except that Denzel wouldn't compete, at least not yet. Despite early playing time being a centerpiece of his recruitment, Nkemdiche was redshirted after pulling a hamstring in summer workouts, but also because the staff couldn't find exactly where to put the true freshman. Was he a cover corner? A true safety? Could he be bulked up to play some linebacker? Since no position seemed to stand out, Nkemdiche was given a redshirt by Nix, and grew frustrated.
"He had an injury in camp, but the staff told him to come in and be a corner and it didn't happen. That wasn’t a staff that was very flexible, they couldn’t find a home for anybody," said Neal McCready, publisher and columnist at RebelGrove.com, a member of the Rivals Network.
"I was mad, for sure," Denzel admits. "Big time. Because I came in here thinking I was going to play early. All I wanted was to compete."
Instead, he watched a locker room splinter under the frustration of losing with his future in doubt and his brother's stock beginning to explode.
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Every year a select crop of top high school talent is lionized and lusted after, but what makes Robert Nkemdiche different is the rarity of his breed in terms of position. Robert Nkemdiche is 6'4, 268 pounds with a 40 time of 4.72. He's been the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2013 class since the database has existed because of descriptors like "uncommon strength and power to go along with feet quick enough that he could be a viable RB prospect." He's two inches shorter than former No. 1 overall prospect Jadeveon Clowney, but bigger (and by some estimates stronger) than the Gamecocks' playmaker was at the same age. He's fast and athletic enough to drop into coverage like a linebacker, and strong enough to beat double teams in the pass rush. Among recruiting writers, he's considered "as close to the perfect 3-4 defensive end specimen that one could draw up."
And in case you didn't absorb it, it bears repeating coaches and analysts are considering that he's fast enough to seriously play running back at 6-4, 270 pounds. Running back.
In short, Nkemdiche, like Clowney before him, is what the Southeastern Conference's six consecutive national championships have been built upon: the holy trinity of size, speed and pure athletic ability on the defensive line. Any top recruit could bust or derail because of injury, but measurables like these eschew casual debate - if your team has even a remote shot at this kind of talent, you do everything you can to get it. Big, fast, strong defensive ends are just simply rarer than every other archetype.
Entering the 2012 football season, the younger Nkemdiche gave a verbal commitment to Clemson, where head coach Dabo Swinney is Conn's friend from their days at the University of Alabama. Then mama stepped in: Beverly Nkemdiche, who currently resides in Nigeria and works as a state legislator while husband Sunday is in Atlanta with the boys, told ESPN the decision wasn't final and that she was unhappy with Clemson, citing pressure on Robert to make the announcement.
Shortly after, a narrative emerged that Nkemdiche was dealing with Clemson to offer scholarships to his Grayson teammates. Nkemdiche was operating a widely read Twitter account, and at the thick of the Clemson talk tweeted a picture of himself and his brother in Ole Miss uniforms. Eventually the attention peaked, and the younger Nkemdiche and his family went into lockdown as the football season began. No more social media. No more interviews.
Meanwhile in Oxford, Denzel found his footing, and because of that, Robert has found himself visiting - a lot. One source at Ole Miss counts eight total visits this year, all unofficial. Under Wommack's guidance, Denzel moved from defensive back to linebacker and began to light up the field. He's fifth in the SEC with 38 tackles, plus two sacks and two forced fumbles, and was named SEC co-defensive player of the week after a huge game at Alabama.
"I think from Day 1 Denzel has been one of the biggest surprises," Wommack said before the A&M game. "Just because we started him as a safety in our Husky position, then we moved him to free safety and finally linebacker. And then from the perspective of being physical for his size and to understand what we want to do, he's been a big, big surprise."
In the first quarter against A&M, Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel's elusiveness began to set a trend of frustration for the Ole Miss defense, but on a 4th down conversion attempt Nkemdiche was able to explode from the far side and cut to Manziel with just enough time to hook his foot and force a turnover on downs, prompting his teammates to spill on top of him in celebration.
"You have to respect the way he plays the game," Wommack said. "Hopefully everyone does, because it's the way this game should be played - full speed, full effort, every play. He needs to learn to play with control because that's gotten him in trouble early when it comes to fitting gaps, but he's committed to getting better."
There's also the off-field matter of Freeze, an earnest and wholesome motivator.
"I’m not convinced Denzel is still here if Nutt's still the head coach," said McCready.
"I’ve never seen a program where the change is so obvious from one season to the next, where kids a year ago were so lost, where kids just looked like they didn’t give a damn and now they look like they'd do anything for the head coach. It's the power of fun that Freeze has brought."
"You don’t want to disappoint a man like that," Denzel says of Freeze. "A man who you know cares for you as a person. You want to make that guy happy. He came into the wilderness and said he was going to steer us out."
If Denzel's arrival in Oxford was circumstantial, clearly there's been a coordinated effort from Freeze and staff to focus on the Nkemdiche family's desire for their sons to play together, but also to foster Denzel as a focal point as well. Cynics might think his promotion to linebacker was a cheap ploy to keep Robert interested, but even Markuson, far removed from Oxford, scoffs at the idea.
"He has his own talent. I would have never brought that film back or called the defensive guys or Coach Nutt if he wasn’t a guy we couldn’t have used right then. And clearly he's proving that now," he said.
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Yancy Porter has been covering Ole Miss recruiting since before there were databases, No. 1 overall players and star ratings. There is no real precedent for a No. 1 overall recruit committing to the Rebels. Ole Miss was "in" on Peyton Manning before he went to Tennessee, and Rebel great Eli wasn't even the top quarterback in his class when he committed.
Porter contends that if Robert switches to the Rebels in enough time, it could create a trend for other top prospects Ole Miss has offered, but that the timing itself is delicate. Porter says he believes Robert will take official visits in the winter to Ole Miss, Clemson and LSU before making his decision, with Oregon, Florida and Alabama in close consideration as well.
Of those six schools, four have played in national championship games in the last five years, and Clemson is coming off of a conference title and routinely bowl eligible. Yet it's the happenstance family connection in Oxford that Porter says is still keeping Ole Miss in front. Robert broke his media silence following the Texas A&M loss, telling ESPN the obvious, that his family very much wants him in Oxford.
"Robert sees Denzel having success on the field at Ole Miss, and he's familiar with his game," says Porter. "He knows that with the success Denzel has already had, the type of defense they could create if they're both on the same field, that they could flourish."
"Yeah ... when you hear 'Rob, Rob, Rob, Rob,' it’s a motivator. But at the same time I’m so proud of him. I just want to keep being an example for him. He’s a high school player, and I’m a college athlete. I told him we’re gonna be special here, this is our time and we’re going to be special at Ole Miss."
In talking with Denzel, there are brief moments where he displays an unnatural confidence for his age, one that's calm and without arrogance. After the A&M game he sits in a chair, now composed enough to answer questions but still visibly distraught and staring into space, reciting coachspeak canned answers to questions about team effort. Wommack walks by, leaving his own press obligations, and grabs Denzel on the shoulder.
"Hey. We're going to fix this. We're going to make this work."
Denzel suddenly shows some life.
"Yes sir. Oh, I know we are."
It's a plain, meaningless response, but he's just sly enough to draw suspicion that this entire affair is a done deal, that he's secured his brother's services to set about building some kind of defensive Renaissance never before seen at basement-shackled Ole Miss. Rumors are swirling: if Nkemdiche does commit to the Rebels, sources at Ole Miss are saying that he could do it if Ole Miss beats Auburn Saturday, but that he's also just as likely to wait until the season ends.
Denzel obviously knows more than he's telling.
"You have to have vocal leadership. I don’t care what anybody thinks of me. I don’t care what anybody says. I didn’t see it here when I came. There might have been a little, but not enough for us to compete at this level. I tell guys, we're going to get better. We're going to do what it takes to build this thing."
"Well ... I’m not going to be surprised when he flips."